If you’re a working professional who’s still a bit confused about social networks and how to leverage them to build your business, you’re certainly not alone.
Social networks – self-contained online forums where users can share their lives and careers and engage in ongoing dialogue with others in the form of text, photos, videos, comments and other forms of high-tech communication – have grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade. More than a billion people worldwide now regularly participate in social networks, and a good portion of that participation is for business purposes. While doing research for our bestselling book on leadership and communications, The Business Etiquette Bible, our team decided to take a deeper look into how social media and our professional lives can, and should, intersect.
In fact, it’s fair to say that today we’re juggling two business agendas: Real and virtual. However you use these networks, though, it’s worth remembering that they’ve had a fundamental impact on how we interact with others. Before Facebook and similar sites became ubiquitous, the word “friend” referred to someone with whom we shared positive interactions and interests in real-life face-to-face settings – among them coworkers, colleagues, peers and professional acquaintances. Today, Oxford Dictionaries’ suite of products actually includes the following definition for the term: “A contact on a social networking website.” When we call someone a “friend,” we now distinguish between a social network acquaintance and an actual friend – in the latter case, someone we’ve met in real life and may even enjoy a deeper personal connection with.
Key to remember here: A friend or, in this case, a professional associate on Facebook, Twitter, or other social networks may not be someone we’ve spent time with in the real world, or know particularly well. But they may not be complete strangers, either – or even someone in-between. This begs the question: What do you share with business associates you’ve never connected with in everyday life, know next to nothing about, or perhaps have just exchanged minor pleasantries in passing? We all have to be careful sharing information amongst today’s fluid social circle. Doubly so, since more unscrupulous individuals could use information against us and our companies, or share sensitive data with other people that we wouldn’t trust at all.
Another issue that social networks present is the false sense of security they convey – much like the Internet itself. From our perspective, we’re staring at a cold, inanimate PC monitor, faceless webcam, or glossy smartphone screen, making it easy to forget that literally billions of people – including colleagues, employees, bosses and potential customers or partners – may be staring back. And, for that matter, can conceivably access anything we post online, which may live on via the Internet forever. Even top celebrities, who of all people should know how public their lives are, have made epic mistakes, tweeting offensive jokes, posting risqué photos, and even slandering other people, simply because they didn’t remember the number one rule of the Internet: Don’t post something you’d be ashamed to share with the public at large.
Also crucial to keep in mind when entering the social networking world, given its high level of visibility and shared nature: One should always avoid discussing topics that act as lightning rods in everyday social situations. Think of your time in the social network realm as similar to that spent at a formal business cocktail party: Politics, religion, sex, and other potentially controversial subjects are typically best left off the table. While it is ultimately up to you what you choose to share, and acceptance levels differ by individual audience, it always pays to remember the following maxim: Using a social network automatically means that you are in shared, and oftentimes mixed, company – and what appears to be a safe, cut-and-dried subject (professional or otherwise) to you may seem like a radical, offensive idea to others online.
To find out more about these topics, also see recent bestseller The Business Etiquette Bible today!