Social Networking: Why?

When I discuss my work with friends and family, I inevitably wind up talking about the various social networking sites and services on which I’ve established a presence: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, GoodReads, iLike, assorted blogs, and so on. Whether it’s my parents, my wife, or my colleagues at the University of Chicago, many of them ask the same question when the subject of social networking arises:


Why bother putting so much information about myself out into the world? Is it simply exhibitionism that leads one to sign up for a FriendFeed account and broadcast to anyone with an internet connection all the movies they’re renting from Netflix and the photos from their friend’s karaoke party that they’ve posted to Flickr? Or is it a lack of connections to people in realspace? And the hidden subtext to these questions: in a world where identity theft seems to have replaced nuclear war as everyone’s number one fear, isn’t it dangerous to let people know so much about you?

I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions lately. I don’t consider myself an exhibitionist (a ham, perhaps, but not an exhibitionist). Part of the answer is a geeky fascination with new toys (“ooh, this sounds cool!”), and a professional need to keep up with the blistering pace with which new web technologies seem to be generated. When my boss or a freelance client says, “Tell me about,” I need to be prepared. Like Dr. Jekyll, I have little choice but to experiment on myself before I can provide answers to the people who sign the checks.

Moreover, it’s quite possible that my livelihood may eventually depend upon my participation in these networks. One’s prospects for attracting work have always depended a great deal upon whom one knows, and what those people know about one, whether through direct experience or through word of mouth. In the Web 2.0 world, one has the opportunity to exponentially increase the number of people who know about you, as well as to have some measure of control over what they know about you. For information workers, our online identity becomes a brand.

This explains why I also participate in networks that are not obviously career-oriented. Our personality is part of our brand, and becomes a means for people to sort the signal from the noise. If a potential client discovers that we like the same music via my iLike feed, or that we like the same books via GoodReads, that is an anchor that provides them some traction in the swirling stream of information surrounding the potential hires they are considering. If a colleague I’ve never met who works at another university posts a question to Twitter that I am able to answer in a funny or memorable way, they may keep me in mind the next time a position opens at their school. Put in utilitarian terms, social networking is a way to build social capital that may pay dividends down the road.

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