2010 was definitely the year of the social network. Big user numbers. Huge valuations. Excessive media coverage. The majority of us now know what social networking means: it means Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Let’s see who’s using them and why.

Facebook is where Generation Y hangs out big time. In that age bracket you really can’t function without it. Many of their parents have also now been tempted to join and have cautiously started “friending” their friends whilst mortifying their young by friending them. They are much like the embarrassing uncle dancing at your party (but, hey, we did invent the music!) I know some of you tech-savvy Gen Xers have been active on Facebook for a while, but you know where you fit in.

With 600 million Facebook users and counting, of course now every sort of “brand” also wants to “have a Facebook page” to get some of the action. “Like me, please”, they scream. (More on this anon.)

At the other end of the spectrum is LinkedIn. This is where business and professionals post their CVs, connect with their professional contacts and look for opportunities. As a LinkedIn user I am “interested in hearing from people who can add value to my knowledge and for whom I can be of assistance” and I want to connect with people regarding one or more of “career opportunities, consulting offers, new ventures, job inquiries, expertise requests, business deals, reference requests, getting back in touch”. Good, sensible stuff.

Then in 2006 up stepped the cheeky Twitter, really putting the cat amongst the pigeons. All you do on Twitter is broadcast short messages for others to pick up on. “How dumb is that?” most thought; and when they tried it, “I don’t get it!” they proclaimed. Well in 2010 many got it and Twitter surged forward. Whilst still a minority pursuit, it has gained considerable traction, amongst Gen Xers in particular, as a very effective means of keeping up to date and sharing ideas.

Making friends

Why use these social networks? At the risk of stating the obvious, they make it a whole lot easier for you to keep up with your friends and contacts, develop those relationships and make new ones, because computers are rather good at that sort of thing. (Per the current incarnation of the Wikipedia Social Network entry, “A social network is a social structure made up of individuals (or organizations), called “nodes”, which are tied (connected) by one or more specific types of interdependency”.)

So Facebook makes it a doddle to keep up with your “friends”, to communicate with them, arrange social events, etc – a super-charged little black book. And LinkedIn likewise effortlessly enables you to curate your business and professional contacts – a Roldex on steroids. Of course, it’s so easy to “friend” someone on Facebook or to accept a “friend” request that most users’ “friends” are merely acquaintances. LinkedIn users are on average more circumspect, but complete strangers do profess to know me and want to connect. Well sorry mate but unless you can establish at least a tenuous connection to me you go in the trash can. A tenuous connection will leave you to suffer in my Inbox for a while. Only real connections are welcome. I can’t see that working up 500+ connections (and thence, let’s say 50K+ second degree connections) is the right way to play this game.

How you use these social networks and how much you benefit comes down to your personality and personal choice. Cautious, picky types like me will take it slow and be selective in their contacts; outgoing types are more likely to build up large networks quickly. One could argue that the cautious are missing out on opportunities, but equally the outgoing may find it difficult to see the wood for the trees or sort out the sheep from the goats; and, perhaps more importantly, as Jordan Furlong argues, “the company you choose to keep has become incredibly important in people’s judgment of you”. Whilst it’s reasonable to be laxer on Facebook, I’d certainly recommend that on LinkedIn you should decline new connections with people you don’t know or with whom you don’t already have a meaningful virtual connection.

Influencing people

It’s easy to understand what Facebook and LinkedIn do, but what of Twitter? You can’t do much there and you don’t even get to pick your friends! But those are not in fact shortcomings; they are key to the appeal of Twitter.

The so-called “status update” is central to Twitter which simply asks you to say within 140 characters “What’s happening?”. Driven by Twitter’s success, the status update is also now an upfront feature of the other social networks (on Facebook, “What’s on your mind?”, and on LinkedIn the more reserved, “Share an update”). The success of Twitter clearly demonstrates the attraction and power of sharing thoughts with a self-selected group of followers. In the main Twitter messages (“tweets”) are not “status updates”, but rather other types of brief message: news and current awareness updates, topical comments, shared links and so on. These messages are broadcast to the user’s followers, whence they may be spread virally via replies or “retweets” which are broadcast to the replier/retweeter’s followers. Unlike the other social networks where friends and contacts are reciprocal, on Twitter you choose whom to follow and there is no requirement or (any longer) expectation that they will follow you back.

It’s social, stupid

Can (law) firms network? Social networking is about people with shared interests interconnecting, so even though it is open to firms to use social networks, the answer to the question whether firms can network is no; only individuals within a firm can network. The most effective way for a firm to promote itself on social networks is for it to encourage responsible individuals within the firm to engage. There has recently been a lively debate on this issue on The Time Blawg, a relatively new law blog by Brian Inkster. Though this focuses on use of Twitter by large law firms, similar principles apply to all firms across all social networks.

Firms can, nevertheless, derive value from a corporate presence on the social networks; in this Newsletter we’ve looked previously at how this can be done on Facebook, on LinkedIn and on Twitter.

The numbers on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn and their potential for further growth are attracting more and more brands wanting to be social:

Facebook has become an integral tick box on just about every marketing plan. Yet setting up a Facebook page alone won’t suddenly make a brand more social. The question for a brand to ask is not whether to use social media. The question to ask is how to make your brand more engaging” (Tom Fishburne, marketoonist).

Nick Holmes is joint editor of this newsletter

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