Hanafi Libman, an associate broker with Coldwell Banker Bain in Seattle, stumbled across social networking Web sites like most people do–through someone he knew who was already involved in one. After mulling around on Tribe.net, a networking Web site where users mix business and fun, he joined a discussion group for real estate referrals and ended up creating his own group, or “tribe,” for Seattle real estate.

Tribe.net hasn’t resulted in any business referrals for Libman. At least not yet. But he believes it could mirror real-life situations in which agents often obtain business through casual conversations.

“It’s the way of real estate. You walk into a tobacco shop and everyone knows you’re a real estate broker and the next thing you know you’re doing deals,” he said.

Social networking Web sites present new opportunities for real estate brokers to find and recruit new agents, or find fresh sales leads. New agents might find them useful for gleaning business advice from other agents. Home buyers and sellers could tap them as a resource to find a real estate agent.

Carlos Flores, a loan officer with Triton Funding Group in San Francisco, said he’s obtained clients from Tribe, but purely by coincidence. Rather than proactively searching for leads on the existing real estate groups, he happened to meet people in tribes not based on real estate who needed a purchase-money or refinanced home loan.

“It’s more by chance than by through the actual (real estate referral) network,” he said.

Social networking Web sites come in two flavors: those that enable people to socialize, find business leads, talk politics or find a date, such as Tribe and Friendster.com; and those that take a business-only approach and don’t allow people to connect directly with others they don’t already know. Professional-focused sites include ZeroDegrees, LinkedIn and Ryze Business Networking.

LinkedIn, which launched a year ago, has more than half a million registered users, with more than 7,000 categorized as real estate professionals, according to Konstantin Guericke, VP of marketing.

“We’re a little more old fashioned than some of the other services,” he said. “We don’t have online discussion groups; we value the face-to-face contact and feel that real relationships are not built online.”

Meet LinkedIn CEO Reid Hoffman at Real Estate Connect, July 28-30 in San Francisco.

Members of LinkedIn create profiles of themselves that describe their occupation, industry and professional background. Users can perform keyword searches that might return matches based on a person’s profile. They also can search for people by name. However, members can contact each other only through mutual relationships. For example, someone who wanted to contact Guericke would first have to search to see whether and if so how the two were connected.

The more connections a person has, the bigger his or her network becomes. Guericke said he is connected to 373 people, but through those people he potentially could reach 356,000 people. The average member’s network contains more than 50,000 professionals.

The majority of LinkedIn members join the network by invitation from someone they know who’s already joined. However, if someone is interested in joining without invitation, they can go to the Web site, create a profile and use a feature that compares that person’s e-mail address book to the network and finds who that person already knows on LinkedIn.

ZeroDegrees, which is owned by Barry Diller’s Interactive Corp, approaches online social networking in much the same way. The site launched in August 2003, and has more than 436,000 members, according to Founder and CEO Jas Dhillon.

“People are using (the service) to accelerate sales, to find deals, locate expertise. We have a lot of executive recruiters who use it to find talent, and it’s also being used for background checks on people,” he said.

Like LinkedIn, members can’t directly access people on the network they don’t already know. But they can search for someone and see whether they may be connected. Dhillon describes ZeroDegrees as a search engine that finds people and their relationships with other people.

Most social networking sites currently are free to users. However, ZeroDegrees and LinkedIn indicated they intend to offer additional services for fees in the future.

Tribe, which launched in July 2003, recently partnered with the Washington Post and Knight Ridder. Unlike the business-focused networks, Tribe has a classified listings feature. Its vision is to become a resource for business and everyday use, a place where people can exchange business ideas, find a babysitter and sell their car all in one stop, according to company spokesperson Valerie Garing.

“I do think there are some business opportunities coming out of it,” she said.

Tribe has about 150,000 registered users and about 15,000 discussion groups.

Send tips or feedback to Jessica@inman.com; (510) 658-9252, ext.133.

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