I spoke with many interesting, smart people last week who are struggling with the whole social media, virtual networking thing. These people are small business owners, consultants, corporate citizens and people in “transition” (the new PC term for professionals currently between jobs). They are men and women, mostly over 40 who are trying to understand this new trend. Every one of them expressed uneasiness about social media. They keep hearing about it, they feel they’re behind somehow and yet they are also very, very wary. Can’t really blame them – social media is a big game changer and it can seem pretty overwhelming at first.

I’ve written about this before – virtual connectivity does level the playing field. It presents unprecedented opportunities to people who are really effective “connectors”. Interesting personalities attract attention. Think of the really charismatic people in your communities. They naturally collect a crowd and that crowd is open to their influence. Now think 450M+ Facebook users, 60+M LinkedIn business people, 1B+ YouTube content viewers – translate that to a business context and figure out the business possibilities for charismatic personalities or appealing brands with influence online. Not surprising that so many people are talking about it.

But I think the anxiety I am hearing isn’t about a lack of awareness or a lack of interest. Social media is pretty visible and lots of people are taking notice. I believe people’s concerns have more to do with how this new technology highlights our discomfort with networking in general. And while it is true that technology intimidates many people, we use it to mask the real issue – networking requires us to put ourselves out there and risk rejection. Uncomfortable? You bet!

People generally can manage one-to-one contact with someone they don’t know well, either face-to-face or online. But think about it, how much do you enjoy walking into a room of people you don’t know (at a conference, an event or even a cocktail party)? People are often overwhelmed by crowds. Now take it online where you have to do something uncomfortable (networking) with extremely large groups of people you can’t see, living in places you have never been and do things you don’t necessarily understand. Liberating or terrifying – take your pick.

I think women have a bit of an advantage in this new world right now. Women are natural social connectors and social media gives them a mechanism to go global and stay in touch with friends and family spread out all over the world. I suspect this is why the largest growing social network user demographic is women 50+. I realize this is a gross generalization; there are many women who struggle as much as men. I also realize this is changing a bit as a younger generation (women and men) grows up (literally) online. But as a general rule, women do talk more to other women, women do recommend things to each other all the time, women do turn to each other when they need to solve problems and that’s what social networking is currently all about.

Ironically, this “social connector” skill may pose a problem for women in the long run and return the advantage to the guys. Men are fundamentally better at using their networks for business, women, not so much. If men can get past some of their fears about working virtually and bring their business orientation to social networking venues, they may see better business results. Unless women leverage their natural strengths while they develop the business savvy to capitalize on these market opportunities, they may lose out in the long run. The social networking economy is forming and eventually it will mature. The people who learn how to successful navigate this new context will have an advantage. At the moment, it’s anyone’s game to win and it’s anyone’s game to lose.

I had a conversation with one of my favorite three-year-olds this Saturday. He called me from his parents’ cell phone to ask me if I wanted to Skype with him to talk about my upcoming visit. He wanted to discuss his plans for my stay. Looks like I’m going to be watching a lot of cartoons on YouTube – a particular favorite – Puppy Dog Baseball http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgOOtKLlTMg. We also talked gummy worms, Christmas presents and Thomas the tank engine, but please! While I am a wee bit cheeky here, all of this really did occur and please take note: my little pal just turned three in November, 2009. The Sunday New York Times only made things worse – the article that sealed the deal – Old Fogies by Their 20’s http://bit.ly/old_fogies_20_year_olds. Brad Stone talks about his 2-year-old daughter referring to his kindle as “daddy’s book” – yikes! To everyone out there over the age of ten – welcome to the new normal.

When my contemporaries ask me why I am involved with social media and why I am so excited about the potential, I ask them how they are communicating with their kids. I am pretty blessed to have rich relationships with lots of younger people who text me, poke me on Facebook, invite me into their LinkedIn networks, share YouTube videos, email ecards, tweet event info and send me presents through Farmville. In turn, I talk to them about online identities, appropriate virtual behavior, respecting data privacy and ways to leverage online tools for real-life purposes – like looking for jobs in a tough economy. Much of this happens virtually. We watch out for each other, we know about our relationships, we hear when someone is having a bad day and we are present in each other’s lives. Because of this presence, we influence each other. They help me stay tuned to new trends; new ideas and I strive to provide caring, experienced advice when they hit a rough patch. Innovation with experience – this is one powerful combination.

This engagement has taught me the untapped potential that exists when the social media concept of “community” is used deliberately to maintain productive connections with a diverse group with seemingly little in common. It breaks down barriers that traditionally existed between these parties and allows people to get comfortable enough to say what they really think. The virtual world is the great leveler – young and old don’t matter as much as the ability and willingness to listen to each other with a certain authenticity. Read all the social media books – everyone says it – there has to be something genuine in any interaction or this simply won’t work. You must risk, show vulnerability and be present. Success requires calculated trust and a willingness to maintain objectivity when things don’t go your way. Compromise is a key component to any relationship as is a willingness to share – I have talked about this before, reciprocity is huge with emphasis on the give rather than the get.

Think of the business potential in this concept and you will understand my passion and excitement about the power of engagement. Seth Godin talks about this in his book, Tribes, http://www.sethgodin.com/sg/books.asp. Engaged employees bring more value to their organizations, engaged partners bring more value to collaboration, engaged businesses bring better value to their customers, engaged people create innovations that create our future world.

This is not just conceptual thinking; these are proven business strategies that work. The medium may be new, the methods may seem different, but the concepts are based in time-tested best business practices. These things will happen whether you choose to participate or not – they aren’t coming, they are here. And while older generations may be able to play ostrich for a bit, the smart leaders are getting ahead. They are looking for opportunities to stay in touch and remain vital as this new reality grows up. Don’t show your age by ignoring the possibility. If you are looking for business differentiators today, why not consider engagement as a first step. Don’t decide right now, think about it while I text my three-year-old friend and ask him what color gummy worms he likes best.

Alright, I’ll admit it, I was never a gamer. I was too busy sailing or running or cooking or biking or doing most anything physical (I have a hard time sitting still). As I got a bit (dare I say it?) older, I was very busy with my job. I was so busy doing things that gaming was never part of my life the way it was for my nephews, Ben and Rich. These guys were hard core World of Warcraft dudes with sexy avatars and a language that appeared rather foreign to me. I watched them play their games with zeal and energy. They wore the t-shirts, bobbed to their i-pods and did battle while they texted and IM’ed each other from across the room. It was an illuminating moment for me when Rich, then 15, complained with great disdain that one of his friends was taking too long to answer him the “old fashioned” way (via email). Gave me pause – I thought to myself, am I that ancient? Can you imagine?

I absolutely adore my nephews – they are really great guys. As an aunt, I have had the privilege of their company long after they stopped hanging with other adults. Aunt-status makes me cooler longer I suppose. It also gives me sway with teenagers reluctant to be seen in public with other adults of a parental nature. My nephews have allowed me to accompany them to concerts (Ben and I spent one night in a mosh pit together), they have followed me up mountains, sailed out on blue water and on and on and on. I have made them eat weird foods, go to museums, travel to new places and try new stuff and in exchange they shared their world with me. But in the end, watching them game was different than participating and it’s the participation that helped them tremendously in so many ways. As a result, their relationship with computers and other technical gadgets, and their communication channels were much, much different – much more intimate and faster-paced – than mine.

You may be wondering why the confession, what does this have to do with collaboration and social media. And while I am not advocating for “gaming” vs. physical exercise per se (I think you need both for a healthy life), I see the clear fluency my nephews have acquired in the virtual space and I am glad for them. I’ve always loved technology. Computers have made my life easier and the potential business uses have always appealed to me. But much of my orientation has been business-based and more clinical. There was a clear separation between my business dealings and my personal stuff, an unspoken demarcation line between the two. That was my orientation and that’s where I played. And while I was fascinated with the cool new tools, I was still more comfortable “listening” on Twitter and Facebook. The privacy/transparency thing freaked me out a bit. It seemed too personal.

And I don’t think I’m unique among the 40+ set. I talk to friends, colleagues and business people and they struggle with the same concerns. Leaving a digital trace is associated with visibility aka vulnerability to unseen (naturally untrusted) sources. (What do you mean @DaronBabin is following me, who the heck is that guy???) They also associate these tools with the trivial because they can’t decipher the code or see the immediate value. What a nimble user sees as opportunity, an unschooled observer sees as a waste of time.

LinkedIn seems to be the exception for this group. Driven by high unemployment, a job-less recovery and the radical changes in the employment process, membership has grown exponentially (http://www.crunchbase.com/company/linkedin). LinkedIn, in financial trouble in 2007, is now a highly profitable service providing a vital, “bridge” to people of a “certain age”. The very formal, business-like nature of the tool provides a bit of a security blanket for a huge number of newbies to the social networking space. Of course, you can’t convert everyone. Even in this buttoned-up arena there are whole pools of people who still can’t make the leap; who deny invitations, close down their networks and refuse to play.

Ironically, as conservative as it is, in my view, LinkedIn is actually performing a more interesting function. It brings the business generations together and allows for a broader, more diverse conversation. It’s an unlikely leveler that seems more professional than Twitter. Even as younger, savvier social media folks pooh pooh LinkedIn, the access to business contacts is alluring and serious social media practitioners are smart to establish a presence. What’s the down side? And just as I have taught my nephews the importance of a good business handshake and how to be polite in public, I have also counseled them on the need to establish a professional digital footprint to prepare them for the work world they will join in the near future. We’ll be setting up their LinkedIn profiles very soon as I continue to chat with them on Facebook and Twitter. Meanwhile, we still climb mountains and keep each other posted on the latest coolest trends and because I am always striving to maintain my “cool” aunt status, I am always willing to learn!