Social Networking Counseling

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I received a funny call from a good friend the other day. She was panic stricken about the number of people “friending” her on Facebook and wanted my counseling to help her work through who could access what on her profile. I am no social networking expert, but it seems more and more friends are asking me how to set up access depending on the “friend”, what they can share safely, and how these social networks should each be used.

There’s a natural evolution going on as people learn to manage their online identities. It will take time, and some hard lessons of experience, for most to get comfortable with what they share. I haven’t personally had any social network “crises” but most of my friends who call me for counseling have had some breakdown related to friends, ex-friends or coworkers driving their need for new strategies. Very generically, people younger and more extraverted than me seem to be diving in and learning their lessons first, while many others are still skeptically waiting on the sidelines, watching how others are sharing.

There’s also an evolution going on with the supporting technologies, which have already come so far in just a few years. I have my hypotheses about which platforms will be used for which types of networking, but there’s a lot we don’t know yet about how they will continue to evolve and how they will be adopted. The assumptions many are making about LinkedIn and Plaxo focusing on business and Facebook and MySpace focusing on personal lives may be loosely true today, but with all these companies trying to break down the barriers and the younger, more technology savvy generations pushing integration between their personal and professional identities, these assumptions may be too rooted in the past and present to continue to hold true.

In the meantime, I’ll share a few guidelines that have worked well for me. I’d welcome comments from others on what works well for them:
1. Don’t link to people who you don’t know. There are different schools of thought on this – see Jake Calebrese’s blog on Linked In strategies – but I won’t connect to someone on Facebook because we know the same people or worked at the same company, or link to someone on LinkedIn because they think our backgrounds are similar. If there’s a reason to link, we should meet over the phone or a cup of coffee.
2. Do adjust your profile settings from the defaults. For example, many people don’t realize how open Facebook is unless you change the default settings. People see via google a subset of your profile including “example” friends if you don’t close that off, and many items are viewable by anyone in your “network”, which could include a city of a couple million people or a school of thousands of alums. Those basic settings should be changed, and if you want to share information like pictures, status updates and personal information, you may want to group “friends” into different groups that either have more access or are restricted in their access to such personal information.
3. Even on these somewhat “private” sites like LinkedIn and Facebook, don’t share anything you wouldn’t want the whole world to see. You never know when a future recruiter or friend will have access directly or through another connection.
4. On public sites such as blogs or Twitter, don’t share location information or anything else someone could use to “stalk” you. Sharing news and ideas is great; letting people know you are leaving the country is probably not. The exception is if you are truly anonymous, without a picture, blogging or twittering for personal rather than professional reasons.
5. In general, be very wary of sharing location information. I’m on Loopt and I love some of the Google technologies I’m hearing about for finding people, but I can count on one hand the people who get access to that info.

I’m a big fan of social networking and have found it to be really valuable in building both personal and professional relationships. I’ve been able to connect up in person with long-lost friends who happen to be in the same city, keep up with friends who I wouldn’t hear from otherwise, and be found by people for business who wouldn’t have known that I could help them otherwise. A lot of people stress and gripe about social networking these days, but I would take the advantages over the disadvantages any day. It just takes a little thought.

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