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Strasser on social networking

Do social networking sites serve you—or do you serve them?

Globe and Mail Update

I'm having a virtual identity crisis. At first, I thought that joining an online network was simply a newfangled contact management tool. But with its promises of business leads, and of helping me "strengthen and extend my existing network of trusted contacts," I'm unsure of who I'm supposed to be or just whose network I fit into.

It's no secret that social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and Plaxo are growing in popularity. But as technology allegedly brings us all closer together, does it really enable us to reach more people effectively? With a tool like LinkedIn, it may appear that we know more people in more places, but do we really know them? More importantly, do we want them to know us? And if so, which "us" do we want them to know?

For the purposes of this column, names have been changed to protect the innocent. This is necessary since I don't know most of the people I am referring to and cannot ask their permission to appear in print.
Apparently, I am now linked to Michael Smith, who is connected to Sharon Parker, who knows Andy Tate, who works at a company that is ostensibly in my industry. I've never physically met them. Yet, all of these people are part of my personal online network, since they are linked to people I actually know. I do, from time to time, receive an e-mail informing me that someone I know is now linked to someone I don't. Does this make them a trusted business contact? Perhaps I should get in touch with the network of people I actually know to see if they can give me the 411 on the network of people I don't.

This may not be the best use of my time, since I can spend my few free moments networking with people I've actually met, rather than deciding whether I want to network with people I probably never will. Besides, if I'm always online networking, when am I doing any real business?
Actually, I am doing business—for the network. In order to invite others to be part of your online network, you must—wait for it—already know them. If I know them, aren't they already my people? And do I really need a network to validate my relationships? Moreover, is it a good idea for me to share personal information about myself and my business on the Internet?

The efficacy of these services is entirely dependant upon users providing accurate information about themselves. If you read the user agreements for most of these networks, they go to great lengths to ensure that a user's personal information will remain confidential. But those of you who choose to provide information about yourself should bear in mind that, in some cases, they know the website you visited before visiting theirs, the website you visited after visiting theirs, your IP address, your computer's operating system, and which web browser you're using. Apparently, they cannot (yet) tell what you ate for breakfast.

Paradoxically, in order to meet people on a networking site, you must invite them to join the service. To invite someone, you simply enter their name and e-mail address, which is then used by the service to send your invitations. This in turn allows them to collect information about you and your "network," for purposes of driving traffic to the site. As a bonus, they send you targeted promotional or advertising material.

This is a terrific vehicle for my clients who wish to promote their products or services directly to consumers, but not necessarily a fabulous tool for my own agency.

So, do these sites serve you or do you serve them? A bit of both, given the new meaning of the word "serve." Their revenue model seems to be ad-based, in that they need to pitch advertisers on the number of consumers they can deliver. This is based on the number of unique visitors and/or hits they receive on their site daily. By enabling them to peer inside my network, I'm furthering their business goals, but I don't know if I'm furthering mine at all.

In theory, it could be productive. But if the old adage rings true, and I'm "only as good as the company I keep," then I really don't know, since I have no idea who all these people are.

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