What’s your social networking policy? Maybe you haven’t thought explicitly about it, but I am sure you do have implicit rules about how you present yourself, how you interact with others, and how you respond (one could say “how you manage your personal brand online”, but I won’t go into that). Here are my own, very personal rules.
Every social network makes a fundamental design choice. I call it the symmetrical vs. asymmetrical choice.
Most professionally oriented networks (such as my favorite, LinkedIn; but also Plaxo, Xing…) are symmetrical, meaning that to establish a relationship it has to be two-way; one has to invite and the other has to confirm. Foursquare works the same way, at least for relationships between people (as opposed to locations). Skype is a communication tool and not a social network (though I think it wouldn’t hurt to integrate its status updates with social networks), but it is symmetrical too: if you have 100 people in your Skype contact list, they have you in their contact list as well.
Other tools are fundamentally asymmetrical: Twitter and its clones do not require someone to follow you if you want to follow them. (Ashton Kutcher, as of this writing, has about 4.7m Twitter followers, while following a bit more than 300 people). Friendfeed and Google Buzz work the same way. In the newsmedia world, the best implementation I’ve seen so far, TimesPeople, is clearly asymmetrical – you are not even alerted when someone starts following you. And I think asymmetry is the right choice for this type of application: it allows you to follow whoever you want, key opinion leaders to behave normally, and the community to grow more fluidly.
Facebook is, of course, a mix. It started out – consistently with its origins as a student community network – with the symmetrical model. However, as it grew, it added many asymmetrical features that added fuel to its spectacular growth: you can, for example, support a Cause or become a Fan without the organization or brand caring to follow you back. But for person-to-person connections, it remains symmetrical.
So, what’s my policy? It’s very simple.
If a network is built on the symmetrical model, I have to know you. Before I accept your invitation to connect, I have to have met you in person, in real life, at least once. There has to be at least an inkling of trust between us. All my LinkedIn contacts, I believe with one single exception in over 1,000, are people I’ve personally met and can tell you something about. (And yes, I’ve occasionally removed from my contacts people I knew but no longer trusted). That’s why, if you send me a connection request on LinkedIn and I cannot recall ever meeting you, I will turn it down – or rather, archive it in the hope of meeting you in the future. (I also hide my LinkedIn contact list – I don’t see a reason to display my professional contacts, like so much meat on the butcher’s table. However, if you send me a request for an introduction to someone in my network, most times I will forward it.)
If you want to be my friend on Facebook, I have to not only know you, but also like you at least a little bit. If I don’t know you and don’t like you, I see no reason to allow you into my private space. I’m also rather strict about privacy settings: for example, I’ve removed my Facebook profile from search engines, and I sometimes restrict photo albums to particular groups of friends. I know many people have a different policy (on LinkedIn, they call themselves “Open networkers”): with all due respect, that’s not what works for me. And among my Skype contacts, I believe well over 90% are people I’ve met face-to-face; the rest I have worked with remotely, on common projects, and I have every reason to believe I would like them if I met them.
If a network is built on the asymmetrical model, well… be my guest. The things I share on Twitter and Friendfeed are public: there is no private space there (Direct Messages, the exception, are – not coincidentally – the one feature requiring a two-way relationship, i.e. a symmetrical one). I really enjoy the serendipity element that this allows, for example when someone I don’t know joins a conversation I’ve joined on Friendfeed and turns out to be an interesting person – if so, I will start following them. And maybe they’ll follow me as well, and maybe we’ll arrange to meet in real life; and if we like each other we might meet again, become friends on Facebook and so on. But that’s absolutely not a requirement: I’m happy to follow many people on the other side of the world whom I may well never happen to meet. Heck, some of them I’m not even sure I’d like.
In summary, on asymmetrical networks, the more followers I have, and the more people retweet me, mention me, or join my conversations, the happier I am: but if you follow me, please don’t expect that I will follow you back. I will follow you back if you say interesting things and you seem to have a basic grasp of etiquette. And that’s why, if you are new to Twitter and start following me when you have no bio, no URL and zero tweets, I will almost always not follow you back. At that point, you’ve told me nothing that tells me how interesting you might be. You might become very interesting at some point in the future, but for now you’ve blown your chance to get followed.
So, if you are wondering how to use social networks to enhance your professional relationships, strengthen your personal ones, discover new things and have more fun, ask yourself: what’s your social network policy? I’m not saying mine is the best – it’s just the one that works for me. But do think about what you share, where you share it, and with whom; and think about how you grant your trust, that one precious currency you can always choose whether to extend or withdraw.