We live in a digital age, when being wired in seems as normal as inhalation. Social networking Web sites like Facebook and MySpace cashed in on the computer-toting generation by creating online “social graphs” that allow youths to socialize in cyberspace. Now, with thousands of professionals flocking to these sites as well as to business applications like LinkedIn, some feel it’s becoming necessary to use social networking sites (BusinessWeek, 9/4/07) to stay fresh in a new age of business interaction.
The evidence to substantiate this notion, however, is slim. Though the number of professionals connecting online surged recently, social-networking sites remain inadequate for successfully making new business contacts. Eric Clemons, professor of information management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, notes that serious business users associate the online social matrices more with spam than substantive relationship building. Unless you’ve already made previous contact, it’s difficult to discern with whom you’re really dealing. The computer screen, after all, offers little more than a résumé with a head shot.
Social-networking sites prove more of a distraction than a tool. The inundation of friend requests and insignificant news feeds on sites like Facebook eat up valuable time that could be spent solidifying contacts in person. “The most effective networking is face to face,” says Stanford business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer. “There’s no substitute for real human contact. It’s less personal online.”
Plus, sometimes a level of cyber-anonymity is more convenient than total Web exposure. While sites like LinkedIn and others allow old colleagues, acquaintances, and business clients instant access to your contact info, it might be more hassle than help to sift through uncensored blasts from the past. It opens up a Pandora’s box of social-professional ambiguity when Spence-who-used-to-mumble-to-his-stapler from Finance sends you a friend request.
It might be better to leave Spence and his stapler behind when you exit the company, maintaining a cloaked Internet persona. And a good old-fashioned handshake or happy-hour cocktail will do more to seal the deal than any MySpace profile or open e-vite. This may be the digital era, but successful business networking online remains a thing of the future.
As the 35-plus crowd jumps on the social-networking bandwagon (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/5/07, “Fogeys Flock to Facebook”), professional networking via these virtual portals is becoming easier and oftentimes expected by business contacts. These resources improve business relationships, open the doors to deals, and even land users better jobs.
Back in 1974, sociologist Mark Granovetter’s “Getting a Job” study revealed that 56% of people found their jobs through personal connections—even if they qualified as only “weak ties.” Today the Internet makes these connections easier to strengthen.
Facebook’s group-making options allow young and seasoned professionals alike to gather virtually, exchanging ideas, business tips, and industry news. The site’s messaging system and personalized privacy controls make following up on the wine vendor you met at last week’s convention simple and safe—he won’t be able to see those pictures of you dancing on a table at last year’s Christmas party until he accepts your friend request.
Similarly, LinkedIn’s clean-lined, corporate-looking site offers opportunities to make new business contacts. Bright-eyed young professionals can search for people using industry keywords such as “investment banking” or “newspaper.” The site then offers the option of sending these contacts messages.
The sites offer a casual way of keeping in contact, without the letter-style formality of e-mail or forced cheeriness of a phone call during business hours. Quick messages or “wall posts” allow for the bouncing back and forth of ideas, minus the stuffy, scheduled phone conference, during a busy Wednesday afternoon.
Furthermore, most recruiters search Google (GOOG) or Facebook and other networking sites for people before agreeing to interview them.
In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell points to the “weak ties” found in Granovetter’s study as “more important than strong ties.” The majority of those who found their jobs through personal connections “saw their contact only ‘occasionally,’” according to Gladwell. Clearly, being instantly accessible via the Internet—and immediately able to gain access to others—opens more doors for networking, despite the lack of face-to-face contact.
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