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 read a disturbing article in the New York Times this weekend (http://nyti.ms/chinajustice) regarding the use of social networking to exact justice (or revenge?) on individuals. NPR’s On The Media also picked up the story (http://www.onthemedia.org/transcripts/2010/03/05/04). Dubbed “human-flesh search engines” or “renrou sousuo yinqing”, these tools of vigilante justice are tacitly overlooked, perhaps even encouraged, by the Chinese government and, in my mind, are an indicator of the worst possibilities for social networking in the future.

I suppose it was inevitable. Given the power of community and the sheer size of the social networking user base, bad things were bound to happen. But when a power vacuum exits, something always shifts to fill it. Not surprising, there is a growing tension between naturally collaborative social media users and governmental authorities that are responsible for providing a legal framework for public protection. An overwhelming conundrum, how to “manage” this new world? In the absence of a clear operating framework, individual governments (for good and for ill) are making it up as they go along.

In the US, freedom of speech trumps privacy concerns at least for the moment. Our system allows disparate opinions to exist (no matter how abhorrent) as part of our constitutional right to free speech. The data privacy conscious EU is taking a different decision. The Italian government took a stand this Feb when they convicted 3 Google executives (http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/02/google-executive-convicted-in-italy-for-downs-video/). The German government is also examining the issue (http://lawpundit.blogspot.com/2010/03/paranoid-on-privacy-legitimate-law.html). Meanwhile, the founders of Google have an equally compelling position: the Italian verdict “poses a crucial question for the freedom on which the internet is built.” Who’s right?

One can argue that the Twitter coverage of the Iran protests last summer is a clear indicator of the power of the medium. (The Iranian government obviously thought so since they are working hard to keep their citizens under wraps.) And there is a compelling case for the good deeds accomplished through social networking for Haiti and Chile in the wake of the recent earthquakes. But uploading videos showing children bullying another child is also powerful – powerful and just plain evil. How do we balance these opposing forces in this new world?

As all of us develop active online profiles, we become more visible in a very specific and personal way. Our cell phones track our physical locations, what we buy creates personal consumer data, our socializing reveals who we know. What we read, where we recreate, what we watch, to whom we communicate, how we do business, what games we play, the list goes on and on and on. And no one really knows who owns this data. Now I am not paranoid by nature….but as someone committed to this online economy, I am clear that my choice creates risk for me. And if the untested nature of the social media “economy” gives me hope and opens possibilities, human-flesh search engines definitely give me the willies.

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.

If you are struggling with the whole social media trend, you aren’t alone, but you might be dating yourself. While many people I talk to lament the passing of “old” ways of communicating (letter writing, the telephone call), others eat, breathe and speak all things virtual. For me, there is always a middle ground. Call me pragmatic or call me crazy, but I believe that business people (with very few exceptions) who wish to maintain their professional vitality long term need to keep an eye on social media. These on-line focus groups, opinion drivers, global connectors present amazing opportunities for creating fascinating networks that level the playing field for small and mid-size companies who don’t have the budget resources of larger corporations. Even large corporations seeking to speed up innovation can avoid the damages of “group-think” by utilizing a larger pool of talent (inside and outside their companies) to spur creativity and maintain their competitive edge.

The tricky challenge – some of the rules in this new space are pretty different than the current business protocol – you have to share things to get things. Transparency is a dirty word in business – it’s scary. With social media, privacy is re-defined and authenticity, collaboration, knowledge sharing are valued attributes – all reasons for business traditionalists to run for the hills and seek cover. But ironically, so much of this new place is built on age-old principles. Integrity is still integrity and betrayal is still betrayal even if it is virtual. In the end, it’s all about relationships. While it may have been professional organizations, rotary, a sporting event, a drink after work or lots and lots of lunches (all still in existence by the way), good networking has always kept business running. The social media space is no different. It’s still all about building meaningful connections with each other, but now you might choose to connect with someone who lives half way around the globe.

For some this new world seems less personal. I think it simply requires a bit of creativity and a sincere desire to connect. And there are still lots of opportunities to meet people and look them in the eye if that’s your choice. Of course, if you have trouble making friends face-to-face, if physical events intimidate you, you may find it less stressful to create a network virtually; less face time might be a good thing. But don’t be fooled, just because you choose to network virtually doesn’t mean it’s any less work.

Building relationship has always been a challenge – they require time and once they are established, proper care and feeding. They also work best when you maintain an open mind. Virtual networking is no different than traditional networking. You can’t neglect a relationship or treat someone poorly and expect things to flourish. It’s pretty hard to succeed all by yourself. But this is no different than it’s ever been; business is more productive if you have a good resource network. Social media simply offers you a larger talent pool. Or you could avoid the whole social media thing, but be prepared, someone younger than you will probably roll their eyes at you if you do.