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Growing a Network

“You found a way to make e-mail useful to you, you’ll find a way to make Facebook useful to you,” Sree Sreenivasan, leading technology expert and dean of student affairs at Columbia, told the skeptical crowd that had gathered in Julius Held Lecture Hall for the Social Networking panel. The office of Alumnae Affairs, in conjunction with the Alumnae Association Reunion Committee and Barnard Business and Professional Women, put together this Reunion event. Moderated by Lisa Weinert ’02, publicity manager at Random House, it addressed a medium that, despite resistance by some, is part of how the world functions now.

Essentially what social networking sites offer is a form of community for people who share interests, activities, or personal connections. Of the many services available online, the most prominent (at the moment) are Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, each of which serves a different purpose. In addition to these three, there are sites and services for specific groups, like eons.com for baby boomers, or Shine, a site for women administered by Yahoo! and run by editor-in-chief and Reunion panelist Brandon Holley ’89. “What’s really neat to me is seeing women being able to connect and share things,” said Holley. But for those wondering what is being shared and why, there are many answers.

Facebook

One alumna joked that panelist Sarah Cohen ’08 and her contemporaries probably don’t want the older generations on Facebook. To which Cohen, Barnard Web administrator, replied, “I made my mom join Facebook because my family is kind of far-flung and I wanted us to keep in touch.”

Sreenivasan agreed, “I’m in better touch with my family—spread over nine countries in four continents—as a result of Facebook than I ever would have been otherwise. If they waited for me to write the letter or I waited for them, it wouldn’t happen.” This is first and foremost the appeal of social networking sites, allowing instant and continuous contact with friends and family, near or far, without cost or much effort.

Surpassing MySpace in worldwide unique visitors, Facebook is now the most popular social networking site on the Internet. What started out as a service for Harvard students in 2004, soon opened to other colleges, and, by the end of 2005, to high schools. In 2006 the general public could access Facebook. The site has more than 200 million active users. Its fastest growing demographic is users over 35, according to the site. Facebook’s appeal is the simplicity of the interface and layout, relatively few ads, and the ability to set individual levels of privacy for each “Friend.”

When opening an account on any of the major sites, a user may import their e-mail contact lists to search for people they know who may already have accounts or invite those who do not have one to open an account and become a Friend. For each Friend on Facebook, a user can adjust her privacy settings to include or exclude certain people. For example, if you post family photos on your Wall (your profile page’s public forum space), you can set up your profile to keep work colleagues from seeing the Wall, but still allow them access to other aspects of your profile.

For some, it’s a fast way to send a message to a large group of people. Cohen recalled that as a student, Facebook not only allowed her to virtually meet her classmates online the summer before attending Barnard, but once at school it became a powerful marketing tool. “If you had an event at Columbia and you wanted students to be there, you would just say to everyone [in the Columbia network], ‘Hey, we’re having an event today on the lawn, c’mere.’ As we started using these tools, our needs for these tools started to grow as well.” Sreenivasan also noted that Facebook is useful in his work as dean, “If I really want to reach [my students] I need to ‘Facebook’ them. That means being connected to them where they are.”

LinkedIn

Panelist Andrea Katz Stimmel ’76, class president and director of business development for Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle LLP, made that company the first big law firm (in American Lawyer’s top 200) to use Facebook as a tool to recruit law students, a wildly successful campaign. However, her personal networking site of choice is LinkedIn. The site, which is far less casual than Facebook, allows users to post résumés and links to outside sites, ask for and display recommendations, and join common-interest groups.

“In my business, and in most businesses, it’s really all about relationships: If you need to make a sale to someone, if you need to influence a sale because you’re halfway in the door, or if you need to expand your knowledge in a certain area, you just ask your network. Erin [Fredrick] found out that I’m doing all this work in social networking because I posted on my LinkedIn profile [that I was] giving a speech to the city bar association on how to use social networking…. And Erin is a member of my group. She called me up and she said, ‘I didn’t know you were doing that.’ … [Y]ou throw a rock in the water … and you create a ripple…. That’s what happens in these social-networking sites,” said Stimmel.

For those on the hunt for a job, be aware that potential employers are using sites like LinkedIn to research candidates. “I’ve been in the business development and research world for a long time,” said Stimmel, “and we used to go to Who’s Who…. And we used to go to all these resources to try to find out about people.

Invariably if you just go to LinkedIn, most people in business are there in some capacity.” Being able to see each other’s “Connections,” the other users in your network, also removes the awkwardness of introducing associates to one another, which used to require giving out e-mail addresses. “If I want to find out about someone … I just ask you to introduce me to so-and-so [through LinkedIn], and then all of the sudden I’m not only seeing that person’s profile but all their Connections as well,” observed Stimmel. Although being on a site like LinkedIn does not guarantee anyone a job, it is possible that a candidate with a résumé, recommendations, and a strong network of Connections on LinkedIn may have a leg up on a candidate who has no Internet presence.

Twitter and Tweeting

LinkedIn and Facebook serve as gathering spots where people can share varying amounts of information; the purpose of Twitter is a bit more equivocal. A networking service (also referred to as a micro-blog), Twitter allows a user to deliver “tweets,” text messages of no more than 140 characters, to “Followers,” people who subscribe to a user’s Twitter feed. As Sreenivasan noted at the panel, Twitter is both a talking and listening device, depending on how you want to use it. Although 140 characters does not seem like much, Sreenivasan pointed out that it’s more than the average newspaper headline, something designed to say a lot in very little space.

This past June Twitter was a rallying tool for the election-result protests in Iran. The FDA uses Twitter to make recall announcements; many companies use it to follow and shape conversations about their products. Performers and arts organizations make announcements about events and opportunities like ticket giveaways. Many often include links, where the Follower can find more information. For example, on May 18, Barnard College tweeted: “Sec. of State Hillary Clinton is speaking at Barnard’s commencement right now http://bit.ly/19hn4y”, the link leading the user to a page featuring a live-video feed.

Up to You

It is up to the user to decide whether or not she has something important to write about and what she finds important enough to follow. Just as everyone needs to be savvy about what they read in a magazine or newspaper, we need to be savvy about what we read on Twitter and other online communities, reminded Holley. There is misinformation on these sites, she noted, “but there are times when it’s about something that’s personal and you just want to hear someone else’s story, the common person’s wisdom.” Some of that wisdom blogged on Shine has gained enough of a following that the bloggers have become regular paid writers for the site. Moderator Lisa Weinert agreed that using the Web as a writing outlet can lead to more success; a book she is currently promoting at Anchor began as a blog.

In addition to deciding what to pay attention to, it’s up to the user to decide how much time to dedicate to social networking. “I don’t think anybody here is advocating just spending all your life [online],” said Sreenivasan. For some it’s the perfect thing to do on their handheld device while waiting in line, others may want to discipline themselves to 20 minutes each morning, or there are those who will weave it throughout a workday that has them in front of a computer anyway. “This is all new....We’re making it up as we go along. There’re no rules about any of these things,” said Sreenivasan. He then cautioned, “Common sense doesn’t end when you go online.” In other words, watch what you write and be polite.

—by Deborah Staab, illustration by The Heads of State