Are you interested in sex? Would you say that publicly?
One of the things that has proven most problematic for people to experience — and most interesting to observe — as we collectively explore social networking online is the problem of personal and professional boundaries. Many people think that the presentation of any more than the most minimal personal information online is inappropriate. You will also find work-at-home moms who post pictures of their naked babies in their profiles and Silicon Valley CEOs who unabashedly list “sex” as one of their interests (try looking at Tribe.net).
No matter where you decide to place yourself on the spectrum, “you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” Offer too much personal information, and some will see you as unprofessional. Offer no personal information, and many will simply choose not to connect with you because you have offered no basis for a relationship if they are not immediately interested in your products or services.
Networks are defined by relationships, and relationships are sustained by transactions. Those transactions may be simple communication — an exchange of knowledge or even affection — or they may be an exchange of money, goods, services, and other currency. We break these down into three categories of transactions: social, knowledge, and business. These rarely, if ever, exist in isolation. People develop business relationships in online multiplayer games and romantic relationships on business networking sites. Being aware of these different kinds of networks — and behaving accordingly — will make you far more effective.
Online groups such as Orkut, Tribe.net, and Friendster in which the primary focus is social frequently offer few, if any, boundaries between personal information and business information. Anyone finding your profile while searching for possible business partners may also learn that you are single, heterosexual, available, and have a preference for redheads aged 30-39. Also, unless the site is affiliated with a religious denomination or has specific guidelines to accommodate members under the age of 18, profanity and open discussion of sexuality is commonplace — just as they often are when people talk in person in a purely social setting. Some people welcome this kind of openness and frankness, while others may feel uncomfortable being prompted to rate a business associate as to how “sexy” or “cool” they are, as Orkut does.
Overt discussion of business, especially anything that could seem self-promotional, is generally discouraged within these communities, and the participants will often chastise or ostracize those who post such messages. Business transactions still occur, but it usually requires the development of a stronger, trusted relationship before the discussion of business can even take place. If you are looking primarily for friends and romance and business is secondary, these sites may be of interest to you because they offer the opportunity for a great deal of communication and interaction. If your primary objective is business, however, you are likely to find them overly chatty and uncomfortably fuzzy about behavioral boundaries.
Similarly, many people who would never fail to carry business cards during the week think it is inappropriate to bring them to religious services.
One of the earliest applications of the Internet was to share data, information, and knowledge within large, geographically distributed networks. That remains a key usage today. Groups focused on exchanging knowledge are known as communities of interest. Those that also emphasize the creation of knowledge are known as communities of practice. Because less emphasis is placed on the individual and more on the ideas they communicate within the group, these communities often thrive perfectly well on mailing lists, Usenet groups, and other text-oriented venues. That holds true even without personal profiles and photos, and even when the participants are anonymous or pseudonymous, such as on Slashdot, one of the largest and most active communities concentrating on technology and the computer industry.
The driving principle in these communities is always the advancement of knowledge about the topic. One-time self-promotional announcements about events, classes, and even new products or services are not only tolerated, but usually welcome, if and only if they relate closely to the stated topic of the group. Also, a high value is placed on contributing to the group, and those self-promotional announcements are generally only acceptable from people who have actively contributed to the discussion.
The activity of business networking generally includes a great deal of social interaction and knowledge exchange. Golf foursomes, cocktail parties, and company picnics strengthen business relationships through social interaction. And sharing relevant knowledge is an excellent way to strengthen business relationships. In fact, many people believe that the sharing of knowledge is the primary benefit of business networking. Examples of business-focused online networks include Ryze, LinkedIn, and Ecademy.
When a group is clearly identified as a business networking group, it is a sign that open discussion of business activity, including self-promotion, referral requests, and business opportunities is appropriate and even encouraged. There may be limits placed on the activities, such as no blatant advertising or recruitment for multi-level marketing, but the topic of conversation is primarily about business activities.
Also, in a business networking context, overt attempts to create romantic relationships are not well-received. As a general rule of thumb, if it could be considered sexual harassment in an office setting, it is equally inappropriate in a business networking setting.
By understanding these three types of networks, you can determine which groups are best aligned with your personal and professional objectives. While a particular site may have one dominant mode for the site (for example, the openBC online community clearly refers to itself as a business networking site — openBC stands for Open Business Club — user-created groups within those communities may have a different primary style. The Schlaflos: OpenBC@Night forum, the largest forum on the site, states clearly in its description that “people are expanding their network by talking about personal topics.”
Recognizing and respecting the dominant mode within a given group will make the group more receptive to your participation, and ultimately make you more effective in your interaction with the group. When typing with Romans, type as the Romans do.