Media Review/Wall Street Journal Claims Facebook Can't Give You Relationships

oreilleIronically Self-contradictory Article Overlooks the Real Purpose of Digital Social Networks

Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal published What Facebook Can’t Give You, which chronicles the growth of the “Wednesday 10,” a professional networking group started in 1957 in Manhattan by William Safire. Established when members were in their 20s, the Wednesday 10 saw many of its members go on to become leading broadcasting executives, investment bankers and real estate moguls, and the point of the headlines is that “old fashioned” offline face to face networking is superior to online social networking.

This is another example of uninformed “criticism” of online social networks because it takes a mutually exclusive attitude toward offline and online social networking, a growing head-in-the-sand response to the disruption that the latter presents. Read on for a short review and discussion of how successful executives in the 21st century will use all modes of social networking to increase competitiveness through authentic relationships.

Offline Networking Success Story Presented as “the Real Way to Network”

The Wednesday 10 as presented is a success story for building relationships among a group of motivated people with complementary knowledge and a sense of commitment. There are millions of such groups that use the same formula of noncompetitive professions, monthly dinners and active support. The problem with this story is that it suggests that groups like this will present fantastic value for their members, which is false. I know hundreds of executives that invest years and thousands of dollars in such groups for lackluster returns. In fact, serendipity often plays a large role in determining the group’s success: if the culture of the group is committed (the Wednesday 10 was also helped by an ethnic connection) and even a minority of the members are plugged into relationships that can serve the group overall, it can create breakaway value as members help each other advance. It can attain critical mass as the Wednesday 10 did. However, if the group doesn’t have access to breakaway connections or the sense of commitment isn’t strong enough, results will suffer.

Online Networking Dismissed as Means to Develop Relationships

The story’s biggest blind spot is that the editor (I assume s/he wrote the headlines as the writer doesn’t even mention online social networks) implies that Facebook (and other online social networks) is frivolous and cannot give you this kind of success. As the founder of the Executive’s Guides to LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, I have worked with hundreds of executives to help them and their companies use online social networks to improve their competitivness. To an executive, activity on Facebook and LinkedIn often looks frivolous, but there is nothing about the networks themselves that prevents creating high value business relationships. Digital social networks are new, and people are experimenting extensively. Very few people know how to use the networks to build and extend authentic relationships effectively, but they are learning fast. Today, people use the networks for all kinds of activities.

Welcome to the “And World”

When confronted by a disruptive technology or phenomenon, many people first dismiss it as silly; if it succeeds, they then assume that it will displace the pre-existing legacy technology, process or behavior. In The Long Tail, Chris Anderson called this the “or world” mentality. Digital documents will replace paper. Online will displace offline. As he subsequently pointed out, we live in an “And world” in which innovations coexist with legacy technologies and behaviors. We use both and adjust our approach over time, usually slowly.

Even more important, people often mistake a new tool for the process or activity. Online social networks are new tools, processes and environments in which we can build and maintain relationships. But the core activity remains building relationships. Most executives (and editors ,-) do not realize it yet because they often perceive social networks as time wasting activity for the frivolous young. Just like that Internet thingy used to be regarded in the mid 1990s.

Some Economics about Relationships

20th century address books of highly connected leaders rarely surpassed 300 people, but today it’s possible to have ten times as many because the transaction costs of keeping connected are far lower when using online social networks. The fact is, it is very expensive to conduct face-to-face networking, but it can be immensely valuable for relationship building. When executives know how to use Facebook, LinkedIn and others, they can find and engage people at a far lower cost (time, opportunity cost, money). They can spend face to face time with well qualified people, leading to higher productivity.

But no one said online networking was instead of face-to-face networking. Best practice is having active digital social networks to discover highly relevant, motivated and committed people whom you get to know by interacting with them online. Based on mutual interest, you supplement some of these relationships with offline meetings to go deeper. Likewise, you can touch people in your network far more often online because it’s less costly for both of you. Offline and online are very complementary. For more on this, see Countering Social Networks’ Unique Challenges with the Relationship Life Cycle.

Because the transaction costs of online networks are lower, executives can build and manage larger networks. The Wednesday 10 carried a very high opportunity cost for members, probably six or more hours per month. Having larger networks can make each member of offline networking groups more valuable when the members build their online networks with purpose and focus on building trust.

Parting Shots

  • All human beings avoid risk as much as possible, and one of our key risk mitigation tools is trust. People we trust will act in ways we can predict, so we prize them.
  • Online social networks represent a fantastic new way to find people with very specific interests (common opportunity sets) and to invite them to engage. It takes about a minute to write a specific three-sentence LinkedIn or Facebook invitation, which includes an explicit value proposition. By exchanging messages with the new connection, by introducing her to people you know with similar interests, by sharing specific links and by answering his questions in LinkedIn Answers, you begin building a relationship. You can expand relationships to go offline at the appropriate time.
  • When the World Wide Web (the graphic interface of the Internet) began in 1994, it was filled with jumping frogs, porn, rudimentary e-commerce and roll-your-own news sites and little else. After some incubation time in which a few serious business people experimented, it began addressing a larger spectrum of the world. Online social networks can be used to play games and to build and maintain powerful networks, but they will turn very serious over the next two years.
  • Once you see this, it’s a bit galling to see headlines like the Wall Street Journal’s, but as I predicted this spring, 2010 will see a raft of such stories. People who believe them put themselves at a serious competitive disadvantage.
  • People who aren’t native with pervasive online transparent spaces (most people over 30) have to work to understand this new environment and learn how to translate their personal and professional style into it. This is rapidly becoming a core skill: if you are a sales professional with 300 people in your address book, how will you compete with someone who has your 300, plus 3,000 connections in LinkedIn, Facebook and others? Someone who understands how to build and maintain trust at a lower cost than you.
  • As for online social networks not giving you relationships like the Wednesday 10’s, just you wait, Henry Higgins, just you wait  ,-)

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