Professional and Personal Circles Converge ... and Confuse

Steve Rubel on Digital Communications

By Published on .

Steve Rubel
Steve Rubel
About a year ago, I became Facebook friends with Rob , the dealer who sold me my car in 2007. Now, I don't have any connection with 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' 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 may be 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 jobs. 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 a job over questionable Facebook photos from a weekend party -- there are clear benefits as well.

Caveats aside, I believe that those who allow these circles to overlap will build stronger ties all around. At our hearts, 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 build 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 doing. Some employees, for example, are solely using internal social-networking tools such as 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.

Steve Rubel is senior VP-director of insights at Edelman Digital.
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