The Case for Converging Your Personal/Professional Networks

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Do you “cross the streams?” In other words, do you co-mingle your personal and professional social networks? This is a tough question to answer. In this essay (which is also my Adage column next week), I present the pro-side of the argument. I also opened up this discussion on Facebook.

As I travel the world, however, I am hearing distinct argument for keeping these separate. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner and I discussed this yesterday. He (correctly) called me “an edge case.” So with this in mind, consider this Part I. In Part II I will look at the case against “crossing the streams.”

As always, I am eager for your views. Help me learn. This is a very confusing topic for many people.

Professional, Personal Social Circles Converge…and Confuse

About a year ago I became Facebook friends with Rob, the dealer sold me my car in 2007. Now I don’t have any connection Rob other than this single transaction. Yet whenever I bring in my wheels for service, he is able to recall some nugget from my activity stream. You see, Rob is smart. He is using social networking to maintain a level of “ambient awareness” about his customers’ total lives and he lets us do the same about him. This instills trust. And trust is the future of business. In all likelihood this helps him drive more sales.

Social networking is rapidly blurring the edges between our professional and personal spheres. Many of us co-mingle colleagues, clients, friends and family within our social networks. Others do not.

While the long term effects are uncertain, this convergence is creating mass confusion among marketers and other corporate types who for years have worked to ensure these circles remain separate. They maybe fighting a losing battle since this train left the station long ago.

The days of us yelling “yabba dabba doo,” sliding down the dinosaur’s tail and leaving work behind at five are long over. Thanks to the proliferation of mobile devices, we are constantly connected to our work. On the flip side, we don’t hesitate to stay close to our personal networks while we’re in the office.

Social networking is amplifying and accelerating this existing trend. It’s forcing all of us to make choices about how public we are willing to be – and what, if any boundaries we want to maintain between our networks. Regardless of your individual stance, this subtle, yet important change is going to reshape how you and your colleagues do business.

The societal norm, it seems, is tilting more toward what thinker Jeff Jarvis calls “new publicness.” This is especially true among younger workers. And while there are certainly major pitfalls – ask anyone who lost their job over questionable Facebook photos from a weekend party – there are clear benefits as well. Caveats aside, I believe that that those who allow these circles to overlap will build stronger ties all around. At our heart, we’re all human beings, not automatons. If we open up and let our customers, colleagues and partners see even just a little bit of our total activity streams, we will break down barriers, instill trust and more lasting business relationships.

This isn’t black and white of course. Each individual will have to decide just how public he/she wishes to be and to what end. This is why Twitter, a public channel, may not be right for everyone. Yet Facebook, which allows the user to tailor his/her specific updates just to a single network, could be.

The good news, however, is that publicness is not an all or nothing equation. You can start small, as many are. Some employees, for example, are solely using internal social networking tools like Yammer to update their colleagues on their day-to-day activities. Other more extroverted types, meanwhile are tweeting their passions. Some even log their total lives on FourSquare, all in full view of their professional and personal networks.

Ultimately this is an individual choice and it must take into account a lot of factors, including corporate policies and industry norms. But in an age where transparency begets trust, there’s a lot to be gained on an individual and institutional level for those who decide in some way to live some of their lives in public and converge networks. Just ask Rob, who I will definitely buy from again.

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