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The death of social networking

Posted: 01.23.09

Social networking has been climbing its elbow curve of popularity as Facebook reaches a much broader constituency, Twitter coalesces the attention-span challenged, and LinkedIn and Plaxo connect job hunters. There's a world party going on for the initiated. Old friends are finding each other, new friends are strengthening their links, loves lost are found again, and all that wonderful stuff, but dark clouds are forming. For instance, New York Times Assistant Managing Editor Craig Whitney sent a memo to Times writers admonishing them to social network responsibly as representatives of the Great Grey Lady. His point, certainly valid enough, is that political opinions, statements of bias, rude comments, funny comments, pictures of drunken revelry, all reflect on the paper and could undermine the paper's position as an unbiased reporter of events.

I know. It does seem as if we've been over this a time or two. Is any human unbiased? Isn't it better to really know a person's bias so you can judge their report? But never mind, the New York Times apparently still harbors its illusions even in a post Judith Miller world.

In another case, PRMan James Andrews who works for Ketchum Interactive Communications and is known on Twitter as @keyinfluencerr, impulsively sent off a Tweet that has dramatically changed his life -- at least for 48 hours or so. He said: “True confession but I’m in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say, ‘I would die if I had to live here.’” Turns out he was in Memphis to give a speech to FedEx employees about the benefits of social networking. Turns out, the FedEx employees and their bosses did not like what James Andrews had to say about their town and an employee in the corporate communications office went so far as to send Andrews a personal message that defended Memphis and brought up the issue of Ketchum's account with FedEx. Hey now, the guy is clueless, but he is entitled to an opinion. Andrews' tweet didn't even spell out what town he was in. It was Fed Ex that supplied the missing information.

How about something even more innocuous but nonetheless dangerous? What about the employee who happily opens her eyes in the morning ready to greet a bright new day only to realize it's Monday. She posts, "just having my coffee and dreading the week ahead of me." And what if her boss, or the HR witch, is in her network? A few too many negative posts, and our friend is starting to look like a malcontent, and the black marks are starting to pile up on her record.

The fact of the matter is this: for some of us, the party is already over. Craig Whitney called it off. FedEx called it off. The boss called it off. The potential employer who researches social networking sites called it off. Many employed people already have to be careful how they appear online and that takes a lot of the fun out of social networking even if you've already given up drunk-naked-croquet games.

There's another danger that's creeping in from the side and it's coming from the James Andrews of the world. Let's not forget that the guy was in Memphis to teach FedEx employees how to take advantage of social networking for the good of the company. Increasingly, the emailed press release is being replaced by the PR post which could gradually crowd out the posts one actually wants to see.

There is hope that some sort of etiquette may work its way through the scene as social networking sites gain identities. On sites that emphasize the social including Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, etc., the PR spinners should be shunned when they spin. Twitter with its 140 letter limit encourages a mix of posts that include the personal, the political, business, and fun. Fine, let the tweeter beware. Answers are fast and sometimes brutal as Mr. Influencer can testify.

And then there are the business sites. In this dark winter of 2009, people are going to need all the help they can get. By all means recommend a friend or that poor guy you just laid off. Use the in-network communication tools for research. Do not kill the system with coy come ons for services. And, do not even think of sending me a Plaxo update request.

Okay, so social networking isn’t dying – I just said that to get your attention – but it is changing. Yesterday it was as much fun as passing a note in school. Some of us wrote elaborate essays in tiny script, an art form in itself. It was great until you got caught and invariably the least artful note, Tommy is a dork, was the one read out loud. Now the potential for getting caught is magnified to the speed of light and the whole world knows that you think Tommy is a big dork. It’s just not as much fun.

Sorry Tommy, but it’s true.