Anti-social networking

Published: May 7th, 2008

It has been a popular topic for debate in IT circles for the past year or more: Is social networking useful for business?

John Reid’s keynote session at the recent IT360 trade show and conference in Toronto was a great opportunity to think it through.

Reid is president and chief executive of the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) and his keynote sessions have been a highlight of the last couple of IT360s. He would actually say they’re not really his keynotes, because he turns them into audience discussions, opening the floor to anyone who has something to say and sometimes cajoling reluctant audience members to the microphone.

With topics like the IT skills shortage in 2007 and this year the question of social networking’s value, this approach makes for a lively discussion. You can count on leaving the room with a new appreciation for all sides of the issue.

The social networking session brought out a wide range of opinions, ranging from those who say everyone in business should dive into it to those who see it as essentially valueless — at least to them.

What do we mean by social networking? What most people in the room were thinking of was services like Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace — ways of creating online profiles and connecting to other people. Some also lumped blogging in under this heading.

One person suggested that not getting into social networking today is like what not getting an e-mail account would have been 10 or 15 years ago. It might have seemed unnecessary then, but it’s obvious now that it was inevitable.

On the other hand, one young entrepreneur said he didn’t think social networking was worth his attention at the moment, because his business focuses on serving a small number of clients with whom he already has relationships. Other things deserve higher priority right now.

That was a telling point, and what it says is that online social networking is just like any other form of networking — how important it is to your business depends on what your business is.

I’m on LinkedIn. For now anyway, I’m limiting it to that and not joining Facebook or any of the other services. That’s mainly because maintaining accounts on these things takes time.

LinkedIn is marginally useful to me. I have used it to locate an individual I wanted to contact, whose contact information I couldn’t find any other way. It’s unlikely to get me work; in a fairly small and specialized field like writing about technology, the people who might hire me generally know who I am, and I know who they are. That’s the way it is for a fair number of businesses.

On the other hand, one avid LinkedIn user I know finds it very useful for locating people to do contract work. For people whose jobs depend on making connections, these online networks are potentially very useful.

It comes down to a saying that has been around the IT industry for decades: “When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Social networking services are tools some people can use constantly, some occasionally and some people may hardly ever find useful. They’re worth knowing about, but if you’re spending hours maintaining profiles on several of these sites, you’d better be sure what the payoff is.