Are You Building a Useful Social Network or Social Stalking?

Brands Want the Widest Possible Reach, but Is That a Good Strategy for Real People?

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Michael Learmonth
Michael Learmonth
I have no idea who Timothy Slattery of Cohocton, N.Y., is, but he knows where I had dinner last night, and where I met a contact for lunch today. That's because he connected with me on Foursquare, one of a daily trickle of people I don't know but who seem to care where I happen to be.

Brands and marketers logically see social networks as a way to communicate with the broadest possible audience, and there's virtually a study a day purporting to put a value of a "fan, "friend" or other online connection. But while brands see social networks as a means to build the broadest possible reach, is that a good idea for real people?

That depends on the network itself and what you use it for. Is it to connect with real friends and family, or is it part of a marketing strategy that makes real connections less real, but nonetheless increases the reach of your network? "Part of the problem is the sad desire to rack up body counts; the one upside is if you have become your own brand and use these networks accordingly, amassing connections may be a smart marketing move," said David Berkowitz, director of emerging media at digital agency 360i.

Some so-called social networks aren't really social at all. On Twitter, for example, the relationships are asynchronous; there is no obligation to follow anyone in return or even monitor who's eavesdropping in the first place. But things are different for other social networks, where the idea is that the user actually has a real professional or personal connection to the people he is "connected" to.

The downside to the brand approach and connecting to people you don't know is you actually create work for them -- and it's not just weeding through the notifications. It's the due-diligence process required to figure out when you should know someone whose name isn't immediately ringing a bell.

That can mean checking their Facebook/LinkedIn/Twitter profiles and maybe a check of the corporate email directory to make sure you're not rejecting a co-worker, maybe one in a satellite office or that friend of a friend you met at party or an event. "There have been times I've wanted to write and ask, 'Why are you friending me?' Or, 'How did you even find me?'" Mr. Berkowitz said.

Facebook just raised the stakes on this vetting process with its "Places" location feature. It's not just about letting people know where you are; its considering whether you want your connections to make that decision for you by checking you in to various "Places."

For me, the rules are pretty simple: Facebook is for people I know and might be interested in my vacation pictures; I'm happy to connect to anyone on LinkedIn who I've met or spoken to professionally. Since I'm in the broadcast business, I do what I can to cultivate a Twitter following.

Then there's Foursquare. I started accepting unknown followers soon after I joined, partly because I like it as a tool to promote establishments that I like, such as the Hester Street Fair in lower Manhattan. That, and I kinda like knowing where people are, even if I don't know them. Since Foursquare doesn't yet offer the ability to set up layers of privacy, like Facebook, you either allow someone to connect, or you don't. Because when you sign up, Foursquare asks if you want to import your connections on various networks -- including Twitter -- you end up getting a lot of requests from people you don't know. Much has been made of the inherent creepiness of this, including or, a nifty data visualization of anyone's check-in history,

Edelman Digital Senior VP Steve Rubel estimates he's got 1,300 Foursquare "friend" requests in what he calls "purgatory." He'd accept them all, but it's too time-consuming to go through and hit the button for each. But because he'd previously accepted all-comers, he's careful about where he checks in -- rarely at a client office and never at home.

The truth is that participating requires work; how much work is some multiple of number of connections by number of networks. "The average person who does not lead a public life needs to decide, should I be friends with my boss, clients, friends of clients, competitors? No easy questions to answer," Mr. Rubel said. "You have to think every single post about the audience that will read that post and the content of it."

Curious as to why someone would friend someone they don't know, I tried to reach Mr. Slattery of Cohocton, N.Y., who seems like a nice enough fellow. I tried looking him up to no avail in both Cohocton and Rochester, where his Facebook profile indicates he's spent some time. His Facebook profile lists Harvard University, so I had a friend search the alumni network, but nothing there, either. Finally, I sent Mr. Slattery a message on Facebook. Maybe I'll hear back. Or maybe, he's got the same policy I do and doesn't connect to strangers on Facebook.

Michael Learmonth is digital lead at Advertising Age. Yes, he's on Twitter at
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