In a blog post a few weeks ago, I wrote about social networking in the SQL Server community. I was inspired by being witness to a colleague posting on Twitter about being unexpectedly and suddenly thrust into the open market of looking for a job. His network responded immediately, rebroadcasting his message and exponentially widening his circle. It seems like SQL peeps are starting to come around to social networking, but if you’re a newbie to that arena, where do you start? Is LinkedIn for you, or is Twitter more appropriate? What about Facebook and MySpace? Should you have a presence on all of them?
Now I don’t consider myself a social networking expert, but I have used all of the above listed tools with some success, and am happy to share what works for me. Your mileage may vary, so don’t take my word for it – talk to others, experiment on your own, and find what works for you.
The first and most obvious professional networking tool is LinkedIn. This service has always specifically targeted networking as a professional development vehicle, rather than enumerating one’s social contacts. This is demonstrated by the Reference feature found only on LinkedIn; you can write a recommendation for a professional contact, and can even request a recommendation from a contact. LinkedIn does not have as many organic social networking features as other services; however, what it lacks in features, it makes up for in legitimacy, and anecdotal evidence suggests that this is the primary destination for those intent on using social networking for professional purposes. A new feature added recently is a status update, similar to the one used by Facebook, and is a nice touch for impermanent notifications (I use this to notify my contacts when I post a new blog entry). As for my use of LinkedIn, I include as many people as possible; I make it a point to add most everyone I meet through my work, and I don’t think I’ve ever turned down an invitation. My opinion is that if you only use one networking site for professional contacts, use LinkedIn.
Next on the list, and arguably the most controversial, is Twitter. Depending on whom you ask, Twitter is either a useful tool for brief notifications, or a colossal time sink. I’m of the opinion that it could be either one, depending on how you use it. I use Twitter almost daily, keeping my desktop client (I currently use Twhirl, with no complaints) open most of the time. It’s easy to configure so that I only receive notifications upon messages addressed to me (either a direct message or an @ reply), and I can easily ignore it when I’m busy. I’d estimate that 90-95% of my Twitter contacts are professional in nature. I’m a little more restrictive about whom I follow on Twitter; because the noise can become overwhelming, I only follow those people who regularly post interesting information. I don’t follow everyone who follows me, but I rarely block anyone from following me. Many corporate networks block Twitter, so you may not have the option to use it during the day, but I’ve found it to be of value to me to keep up with those in my circle.
Also to be considered is Facebook. This is much more of a social site than LinkedIn, and somewhat more socially oriented than Twitter. Most of the people I talk to consider Facebook to be purely a personal outlet rather than a professional networking tool. I tend to agree, though I do have many Facebook “friends” that are mostly professional. Facebook is one of the more feature-rich tools, including chat, status updates, personal picture galleries, and a large profile section to describe everything from your relationship status to the music you like, even religious and political views. Because of this, Facebook is also frequently blocked by corporate proxy servers. I’m the most restrictive on whom I’ll “friend” on Facebook; I reject invitations from people I don’t know well, and I occasionally prune my list of friends. Here’s a telling statement: I don’t use Facebook at work, at all. That should adequately describe how much I value this outlet as a professional tool, which is to say, not much. For me, Facebook is almost entirely personal.
Lastly, there is MySpace. To be frank, I never use MySpace any more. I used to use it a lot for mostly social and family contacts, but the obnoxious features and spyware/virus invasion was too much to take. I assume that I still have a MySpace account, but I haven’t logged in in months, nor do I plan to in the near future.
Using social networking tools to build one’s professional circle can be valuable, but can take some trial and error to make it work for you. I’d be interested to hear some other stories of how social networking has worked, or not worked, as a professional communication tool.