Monday, October 15, 2007

Social Networking: Resistance is futile

For the past few months or so I’ve been getting an increasing numbers of requests to join this or that social network. Up until a week ago I’d resisted all of them, whether it’s simple email contact organisers such as Plaxo, the lesser known Hi5, the business-minded LinkedIn or the social star of the moment, Facebook.

I don’t know what it is, but something makes me baulk at the idea of adding more communications channels to my already overloaded mix. I can’t keep up with email, and as friends attest I have a strange habit of either leaving the mobile at home or not answering it anyway, so what chance have I got if I throw in one or three social networks?

Other objections: I’m already a world-class procrastinator and I just know the likes of Facebook would be more excuses not to hit the keyboard productively. Then there’s the concept of sharing all of your contacts with whoever you happen to befriend in the social non-world. Is that always desirable?

For example, I and a mate in the financial services industry were both contacted by the same person to join their social network. It was probably fair enough, as both of us knew him and were reasonably close. Still, my finance friend guy called up to get the lowdown on the network. “So you’re telling me that once I join, all his friends can see who my business contacts are? Toss that!” Well, actually, he didn’t say “toss” that, but needless to say he didn’t think it was a great idea. And I’m not so sure myself.

Of course some networks let you hide your contacts, others not. When it comes to privacy, I’m even a tad concerned at the way Gmail makes my presence known to just about anyone who I’ve ever exchanged email with and also happens to use Gmail. If you’re a Gmailer you’ll know exactly what I mean – the Quick Contacts list on the left either has a green, amber or red light showing your status at that time. If it’s orange, you know the person hasn’t checked in with Gmail for a while, however if it’s green or red, you know they’re around somewhere.

The problem with this is that you might not want someone that you happened to reply to once know that you’re online, whether you say you’re available (green) or not (red). For my liking, it gives too much information away (like the time of day or night you like to be at the computer), but I haven’t come across a way of customising the presence information so that some of my contacts can see it while others can’t. It would be a killer feature if you could, however, one that I’d be willing to shift email providers for.

In the meantime, I took the bold (for me) step of joining LinkedIn the other day. Yes, I know I’m late to the game, but I thought I’d still try to play. It’s obviously well thought out, but for my line of work I found the job categories a bit limiting. Basically, I wanted a catch-all “media” category, but instead I had to make a selection from the likes of information services, broadcast media, writing and editing, and media production.

Problem is, in today’s media world you have to be a jack-of-all-trades. For example, at the last CommunicAsia I mainly did broadcast video interviews, and more lately I’ve been doing a fair bit of online media and production, although essentially I consider myself a writer/journalist. I’d imagine a lot of other industries are hit by this type of convergence, so hopefully the LinkedIn folks have catered for it.

As for the usefulness, it’s too early for me to say, so I decided to do a straw poll among those who I’d linked to and see how much value they’d gotten out of it. It was roughly a 60/40 split, with 60 percent suggesting it wasn’t really of any benefit. However, of those that did find it useful, one of the most common reasons was for catching up with former university or work colleagues. Only about 20 percent found it useful professionally. (And no, there was absolutely no scientific method to my poll whatsover.)

Of those that did find it useful, they tended to be in the contracting/consulting business, and some had found it a good tool (or knew others that had found it useful) when it came to job hunting. At the other end of the scale, some advised me outright not to bother with LinkedIn as I’d get more value from Facebook, while another suggested that he’d found the most value in the Plaxo contact manager.

I’m still willing to experiment, so if you’d like to connect, send me an invite to geoff at That said, one of the features that would be really useful is the ability to delete your entire presence if you decide it’s not for you. That’s one feature I don’t think LinkedIn offers, at least in the free version, but which would certainly help pursuade those of us still not convinced about the privacy safeguards of this whole social networking thing to at least try it. – Geoff Long

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