One of the better features of LinkedIn is the relationship map that shows your friends, and their friends, and their friends, and so on. It is a useful tool when you need to talk to someone you don’t know directly, or get information about them – just find a path through mutual friends.
But we all know what sucks about LinkedIn. Contacts are sorted in only a single list, and there is no way to signal that one person is a closer contact than another person. Also, there is significant social pressure to simply accept anyone that asks into your network. My LinkedIn contact list is littered with people that I don’t know and that I accepted as contacts simply to avoid turning them, whoever they are, into enemies.
Silicon Valley-based VisiblePath is a lot like LinkedIn, but it automatically determines who your real network is, and how strong each individual relationship is, based on your emails and calendar items that involve them. VisiblePath will officially launch next week at the Web 2.0 Expo.
VisiblePath obtains the information on who you interact with via a 6 MB Outlook plugin. Each connection is graded on a percentage scale that strengthens from frequent communication and atrophies over time unless you are emailing or meeting with the person regularly. The company is also creating ways to track interactions beyond Outlook, through phone calls and instant messages.
VisiblePath is engaging and insanely useful. It’s far superior to LinkedIn in measuring personal relationships, and it’s actually quite interesting to see just how close some of the people in your life actually are to you.
Here’s a look at how it works.
Setting Up Your Network
By default, your network is seeded with low strength links to all the other users from that email domain, similar to how Facebook establishes networks. From there you can manage and interact with your network through the website, but the real utility comes from installing their Outlook plugin. Without it, VisiblePath can’t do as good a job establishing and gauging the strength of the relationships in your network. The Outlook plugin figures out your current network and tracks its changes by analyzing what contacts you made, who you emailed, and the meetings you scheduled. The plugin can run this scan daily, weekly, or monthly at any time of day.
To “separate the wheat from the chaff” as CEO Antony Brydon stresses, Visible Path requires a certain level of interaction to establish a link in your network. People can’t establish connections to you in their network by simply emailing you or adding your email to their address book. You have to exchange emails, carry out meetings, or provide a deep level of contact information on their vCard to show a real relationship. Relationships wax and wane over time based on the length your relationship with a contact as well as the volume and momentum of emails exchanged and meetings organized.
The people you interact with on a regular basis are your first degree contacts. Their contacts are also added to your network, linked by the chain of other contacts that connect you together. The strength of your connection to these people varies by the number of people along the chain and the strength of each chain. Your connection strength with contacts varies based on interaction, but can be bumped up to 100% by formally connecting to them. Taking the strength of your connections into account makes it possible to have a stronger connection with someone 4 people removed than 2 people removed from you if the connections between those 4 people are strong enough. That’s something LinkedIn doesn’t do.
Pinging Your Network
For the sake of maintaining privacy, VisiblePath never exposes your extended network to other users. Instead, to find contacts beyond your direct network, you have to search for them by name, job, or company. The results page gives you the most likely result based on that criteria and displays the shortest chain connecting you to the contact. You can also get a list of alternate connection paths as well. By default you only know the identity of the first link in the network chain, but people can choose to expose this information. Each result also has a profile page for that person, similar to LinkedIn, that contains their work experience, education, contact information, and bio. All of this profile information is hidden from distant connections and made visible to closer ones.
If you find an interesting contact, you can request an introduction, or more information on that person from the people along the chain. Information requests must be approved as they are passed down the chain. Each member of the chain can add their own input about the contact, but the last person has the final say on sending the information back to you or not. Introductions are handled in a similar way, requiring each person in the chain to approve the request before your message reaches the final connection.
The company is backed by a total of $22.7 million in series A and B financing from Kleiner Perkins, Menlo Ventures, and Integral Capital. Esther Dyson is also an investor.