Facebook's professional potential evolves

With 52 friends and counting, this Facebook challenge has taken over my life (don't tell my editor). But a lot of us are still wondering: Can we really use Facebook in business? My answer: Why not?

I have 52 new friends.

And I have no idea what I'm going to do with them all.

It's been nearly three weeks since I challenged CIOs and IT managers to sign up for Facebook in the hope that the uninitiated would come to understand the potential business value of social networking sites. And, yeah, I wanted some friends.

As I confirm invites like a mad woman, respond to questions, join groups and, yes, make real friends, I'm not sure if I'm having a blast or driving myself to the social networking nut house.

This is what I can tell you about the folks who took my challenge:

  1. Of the 52 people who "friended" me, about half were already using Facebook.
  2. More than 40 of my friends are over the age of 40. Most are male.
  3. Most hold positions within IT.
  4. Seven of them have blogs.
  5. They represent 12 countries.
  6. They're good-looking people.
  7. One of my "friends" is an IT director and a helicopter pilot.
  8. They are joining groups -- from "I've had sex with someone on Facebook" to "ITIL." It was a shock to me, too, but they're real groups. The ITIL one has 657 members who exchange comments about business practices. I didn't check out the other one.
  9. Only about 20 are active users.
  10. There are at least four Shakespeare enthusiasts.

Of all the comments I've heard in recent weeks about Facebook, it's the social vs. professional debate that comes up time and time again.

One of my friends, Eric Hanson, asks on his profile page: "Is Facebook a social or business resource to you?" His experience thus far is heavily weighted to social networking sites rather than the more professional LinkedIn or Plaxo.

My answer was there absolutely is room for professional networking on Facebook, but I think it depends on whom you friend. From what I can gather, with whom you chose to network determines what kind of networking you do. After all, how can you keep a professional front if you've got a friend who keeps asking you to play Movie Trivia? But it's also about how you build out your page. What kind of applications are you using? Plus, results are not immediate. Like real friendships or professional networks, solid relationships don't happen overnight.

There are a handful of people who "friended" me in the past few weeks who use Facebook as a professional network, but most are using it for social purposes. Perhaps the reason is cultural or that users haven't yet mastered the inner workings of Facebook to exploit its potential.

More likely, it's this: Facebook was built as a social utility, and applications and activities are built around that concept. Applications like "Vampires" are just too hard to resist and, really, who wants to "bite" their boss?

There may be little incentive, at this point, to use it to advance our careers.

Still, Stamford, Conn.-based IT consultancy Gartner Inc. says in a new report that it's only a matter of time before social networking platforms (such as Facebook) cross the boundry from social networking to what has now been dubbed enterprise social computing. Although a Facebook that targets and supports enterprise business process requirements doesn't exist, Gartner predicts that given the interest of companies such as Microsoft, IBM and Oracle Corp., it's only a matter of time before a platform is developed where social and professional networking coexist.

There is definitely a movement under way. I have seen a shift in the level of interest among IT professionals. Last week, I attended a session on wikis, blogs and social networking at the Interop conference in New York. The room was packed with IT professionals eager to learn how they could incorporate new media into their workplace. The speakers ran out of time. I thought it was promising.

Still, if you want to use Facebook professionally, do it, but be patient and choose your friends wisely. Add business applications (there are 311, and new ones are added every day). There are apps that allow you to post your résumé, or introduce you to people in similar jobs; an event planner; and an application that lets you view and share your LinkedIn contacts. For fun, you can add the "Business Word of the Day." Note that not all applications on Facebook (there are nearly 7,000) are worthy -- some don't even seem all that reputable, so chose carefully.

The same goes for joining groups. I just joined "Social Networking in the Enterprise" -- a discussion group revolving around social networking tools and processes. On Wednesday, I did a quick search on information technology and found 202 related groups. Two that popped up on the first page: "American Society for Information Science & Technology" and "CISA Certified Information System Auditors."

Facebook is a new media phenomenon and no one can say with any certainty how it will evolve. In the meantime, embrace it. At this point, why not?

As a side note, just as I was putting the finishing touches on this column, I had a vendor briefing with MyLifeBrand.com, a social networking platform that provides a single Web site destination for multiple social networks and user communities. Part of its appeal, I think (I haven't actually used it), is its ability to let users easily determine who gets to see what -- which means you could, in theory, have one profile but two personas -- a social one and a professional one. I'm not sure how dissimilar it is from Facebook's privacy settings, but I'll check it -- and other, similar sites -- out over the next few weeks. If you have any comment about how these sites work, let me know.

Kate Evans-Correia is senior director, news, for SearchCIO.com and SearchSMB.com. Let us know what you think about the column; email: Kate Evans-Correia

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