Saturday, March 1, 2008

Social Networking's Icky Factor

Bestselling author and blogger Seth Godin gives his involvement with social networking sites: "I was talking today in a teleconference about how 'friends' aren't really friends, at least not in most social graphs. I'm not much inclined to do a heroic favor for a friend of a friend of a friend. As a result, because it feels icky to say 'no', I don't hang out in the networking sites."

Many frequently use the term "social media" like it's a singular when in reality there are a vast array of potential tools to be used inside that term, and a section of social media that is for social networking. Social networking sites include MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn ... and others.

Seth Godin isn't alone in finding the icky factor in some of these sites. I recently facilitated a focus group related to social media experiences, and there's plenty that has turned people off from wanting to adopt aspects of it. Notable quote from a very tech-savvy person in a focus group, "I didn't want to go back to junior high".

Advance warning: if you get offended that people both have and are entitled to opinions that may be separate from your own, or if you don't believe that perception can be reality, then stop reading.

Here's feedback on why some who checked out social networking sites may have rejected it:

1. The friends request, but they're not my friend, and I don't know them. Either have to send someone requesting to be a "friend" an accept, rejection or ignore it. That's out of comfort zone for people as they aren't accustomed to having to accept someone they hardly know (or don't know) as a "friend" or reject them. Or they don't want to increase the volume of people asking for favors or introductions (like Seth Godin). The "counts" are somewhat of a farce too as it can just be a numbers game (i.e., how many can I collect, even if barely know them) versus a legitimate display of professional or personal relationships.

2. If your pre-teen or teen is there, it doesn't seem like it's a serious professional networking site. Many indicated their first experience with social networking was looking at the sites of their kids and friends of their kids. It was more than enough to turn them off from wanting to use it personally or for a professional interaction. Meaning, it's not lack of knowledge - but rather having knowledge that led to reject the professional use.

3. The communication can be rude, crude and certain employee images unprofessional. There are professional people who still embrace the idea of professionalism in public displays and communications. Real life professional interaction often wouldn't accept what social networking might accept - sniping back at someone publicly versus handling privately, routine use of crude language, personal pictures with extremely low-cut clothing or shirts with suggestive comments, flirting in posts among married professionals, etc. I'm not sure how many associations have eliminated dress codes and conduct codes from their employee manuals or expectations, but social networking might start with skin-baring attire and crude language.

4. Grow up already. Imagine pulling up to the office and finding middle-aged male employees having a snowball fight or wrestling each other. On one site, everyone notified when those in your "network" are throwing virtual snowballs at each other. If a perception is it's ridiculous or juvenile in real life, it might actually looks that way online too. Tools initially built for teenagers are being used by adults, which doesn't necessarily make everyone believe it's adult.

5. Peer networking has to involve peers. The most common answer I hear to the question "why don't you" is that peers aren't there, and that's often the point of networking. When any tool isn't being widely used even after years of existence, chance it just won't. That's how word of mouth and viral marketing work. If not getting buzz by peers, or enough success stories, then no big surprise not being widely used organizationally.

6. Networking is always a personal preference. Each of us has our own ways to network. Some go to happy hours, others to book clubs. Some join country clubs, others join service organizations. Some like membership meetings, others like online interaction. The odd distinction is on social networking sites associations execs might say "if you don't network and interact my way you have no future." Huh? It's ONE way to network and communicate, but not the only way. Just like every other networking opportunity isn't the only way.

7. We don't have to control everything. Sometimes the easiest way to kill momentum is to try to force it under an association umbrella when not a valid reason to. Conversations can happen without associations trying to control it or get their name associated with it. Established social networking sites can generate conversation, and associations can watch, participate and/or learn. Let sites and users be responsible for their own liability, actions and words. Just like hall talk, bar talk and the discussion from the car ride home from a meeting are hugely valuable, so is other conversation held away from the association control. Associations are not just leaders of conversation - it's how we turn conversations into actions that benefit the industry that ultimately matters.

Whether we want to believe it or not, many will find icky factors on social networking sites. What makes any of us feel icky (or not) is personal. But surely a possible factor in why not being used or adopted.

Note: I personally use and see value in networking sites, and my association will soon have a major campaign for the public (versus just internal) integrating social media, including social networking. But clearly many associations don't find enough value to decide to do it, especially if members not requesting/widely using it too. Selling the specific benefits by giving examples of success (on the action side, not just the conversation side) could lead to greater adoption by other associations.

Can we find examples of how social networking impacted an industry outcome?


Tony Rossell said...

Cindy -- Excellent post. Everyone is very excited about social networking, but as with anything there is a balance. Thanks for sharing some of the other side of the equation. Tony

Lisa Junker said...

Definitely a great post. I appreciate that you always try to look at different perspectives in your posts!

At the end of your post, you ask if we can find some examples of social networking creating positive industry outcomes. Most of the examples I've seen have been successes for nonprofits, rather than associations, but both kinds of successes may be of interest to you. Hope these links are helpful!

- IGDA on Facebook and LinkedIn

- The Humane Society of the United States on Facebook

- A more general article on nonprofits using social networking and the successes and problems they've found