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Guy Vs. Guy: Is Social Networking Good for Business?

Welcome to Guy Vs. Guy! In this recurring feature, Rick and Dave square off on the business and technology issues of the day. Today's topic: Social Networking. Can business users mine services like Facebook and LinkedIn for marketing gold? Or are the risks of online embarrassment too great?
Dave: Everyone around me seems obsessed with social networking these days. So much so that even I've started to dabble in services like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, if for no other reason than to see what all the fuss is about. To be honest, though, I'm not convinced. They seem like a lot of work and offer little to no business value. Where's the beef?

Rick: Well, you can't just join an "I Play Dance-Dance-Revolution When No One's Looking" group on Facebook and expect it to improve your bottom line. There's definitely value in social networking if you know how to leverage it. But as you said right up there in the title, there's effort involved.

Dave: I can see the effort part of the equation. But what about the payoff? I've never met anyone who has ever actually gotten any business value out of a social networking app. It seems to me that these things mix too much business and pleasure. Are you comfortable linking to your boss or clients on Facebook when your cousin Wally could, out of the blue, embarrass you with some sort of risque post? Is it possible to keep your profile completely business safe?

Rick: It is indeed, as revealed in our recent post: Could Your Facebook Profile Cost You a Job? Users definitely need to be careful about what appears in their profiles and, more importantly, who's allowed to view them. On Facebook, for instance, you can tweak the privacy settings so only your friends can poke around your profile, not the world at large. As for LinkedIn, that's a decidedly business-oriented network, so if you're dumb enough to put inappropriate stuff in your profile there, you deserve any ensuing calamity.

Dave: It's true that if you decide to plunge into a social networking site, you need to take precautions to prevent it from torpedoing your career. The Web is full of cautionary stories about the dangers of social networking. You can find the occasional hand-waving vagaries about Facebook's business potential. But, as BusinessWeek recently wrote, "[Social-networking Web sites] may provide entertainment for people with time on their hands, but have shown little ability to improve productivity, create substantial numbers of jobs, or earn a profit." Facebook, at least, appears to be an empty shirt. So, Facebook Man, do you have any real success stories?

Rick: Well, no less than the New York Times recently scored a big win with an election-related Facebook promotion. And Business Hacks commenter Antonio Centeno, president of custom-clothier A Tailored Suit, leverages Facebook for his business, calling it "a beautiful thing." But the obvious value in any social-networking site lies in the networking: The more people you connect with, the more you're able to promote yourself (and/or your business). Out of work? You know what they say: It's not what you know, it's who. Your Facebook friends might be able to hook you up with opportunities you'd otherwise never find. This isn't about productivity or job creation, it's about networking!

Dave: I'm not sure that the Grey Lady's Facebook stunt is especially relevant to any of us, but you make a good point about the value of networking. What concerns me is that it's incredibly difficult to mix business and personal in a safe and coherent way. It's possible to keep a python that knows how to operate a firearm in your house, but is it really worth the risk? After all, the logical marriage of social networking and job search is a site like VOIS, where "virtual outsourcing is social." Have you seen that site? Vendors and contractors are expected to bid for jobs while listing their favorite movies and choosing from moods like "Aroused" or "Blustery." Oh, the humanity.

Rick: That's a perfect example of a company trying to inject social networking where it just doesn't belong. And a perfect example of how business users should be careful where they create online profiles and what kinds of information that stuff in. A simple Google search of your name can steer employers to those profiles and all your wacky inappropriateness therein. (You've got it particularly rough because you have such a common name. How can an investigative employer distinguish you from the Dave Johnson who likes clubbing, Cosmopolitans, and chick-lit? Oh, wait, you are that Dave Johnson!) In any case, I agree that it can be difficult to keep personal social networking from mixing with business, but I also think anyone looking for an edge should make the effort. In these times, every little bit helps.

Dave: As usual, your debating skills are almost awesome enough to convince my grandma's antique vase that it should have a healthy fear of heights. So far, we've agreed that social networking in a business context is like playing with the kind of fire that can actually fire you. And we've shown that taken to its logical extreme, social networking can result in a site where my business profile gets messaged by a total stranger saying that he "digs my picture." Not unexpectedly, I win; play us out, sir.

Rick: Not unexpectedly, your lame attempts at humor don't actually support your position. By your reasoning, no one should ever send e-mail, either, lest it fall into the wrong hands. If you're smart about social networking, it can be a killer marketing tool. If you're careless and foolish, it can have disastrous results. The same is true of e-mail, voice mail, instant messaging, Twitter -- shall I go on? Anyway, you can rest assured: No one who sees your picture is ever going to "dig" it.

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