Remember the good old days when businessmen and women would conduct business in person, often with a handshake? When I sold real estate in New England only a couple years ago, local businessmen and women would get together once a month to share ideas and network through a community-wide program called Business After Hours. These meet and greet opportunities were very effective and beneficial for all participants. I happen to know for a fact that many homes were bought and sold via the interaction of various Realtors at these meetings.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you choose to look at it, we live in an electronic age where old fashioned, fact-to-face exchanges of ideas have been replaced with chat rooms and forums in cyberspace. With the advent of the Internet, we can now communicate effortlessly with people all over the globe and have instant access to all kinds of information 24/7. With all these great advances in technology, why are violence, intolerance and detachment increasing? Statistically, we live in a more transient society. Gone are the days when a person is born, lives, works and dies in the same general area. Neighbors seldom take the time anymore to get to know each other. Why bother when homeowners move (on average) every five years or less? Add to that our insatiable need for instant gratification, and it’s no wonder that we have short attention spans and even shorter tempers. Regardless of our personal opinions about technological advances in The Information Age, it appears that the Internet is here to stay.
So, as business owners (and as people), we must learn to adapt to changing methods in order to survive. In that enterprising spirit, I have spent a fair amount of time researching new business practices and ideas in an effort to drive more traffic to my website and, hopefully, increase business. Of course, the Internet is rife with articles and advice on how to accomplish just that. Some of that advice is pretty sound, backed by years of practical application. Some of it is a bit more subjective and tentative. Nevertheless, I made a conscious decision to keep an open mind and seek out new and progressive ways to accomplish my goal.
One idea that surfaced consistently on the web was the notion that participating in online networking sites and forums, both social and business, is a good way to meet other likeminded people and increase interest in my business. After reading several articles from recognized and generally accepted sources touting the benefits of online networking, I decided to follow their plan and see what benefit, if any, my association with such sites might yield for my business.
I began this quest, of sorts, full of hope and eager to explore all the many facets of social networking. I was determined to learn all I could from the more experienced business owners I expected to encounter and offer my own experiences and expertise in return. I figured that if I helped other aspiring entrepreneurs and, in the process, increased traffic to my website, then I would have succeeded in my endeavor and created a win-win situation all around. I spent the last 10 months or so participating in no less than seven of the “recommended” websites and forums. I’ve poured through thousands of pages of opinions, jokes, discussions, debates and information. Of course, I actively shared my own views, ideas, advice and information and invited others to critique my website and my work. After all, that was the whole purpose, right? I did, indeed, “meet” a lot of different people and exchange thoughts and ideas on various topics. While some of these exchanges have been interesting and, at times, entertaining, the real issue is whether or not they have increased traffic to my website, added to my client list or provided me with invaluable information that I could not obtain elsewhere. The answer is a resolute NO.
Instead, my mission to improve my business quickly degraded into a social experiment that reminded me of my college psychology and ethics classes. All the usual suspects made their appearances, time after time, on every single website and forum. In fact, the pattern was eerily distinct and consistent. In each case, some of the long-time members took on an authoritative role and never hesitated to let others, especially newbies, know they were just plain wrong. The topic of discussion didn’t really matter. These old hats had been there, done that and bought the T-shirt. They know it all and feel it’s their duty to set you straight. Some even went so far as to redefine ideals or terms to prove a point or demonstrate their perceived intellectual prowess. Oddly, many of the other members, though seemingly no less intelligent, acquiesced to the viewpoints of these individuals. In fact, they often offered their adulation in exchange for some trivial acknowledgement or validation. I found it interesting, and yet a bit sad, that several of the “know-it-all” individuals obviously spent a great deal of time perusing the forums and posting numerous daily commentaries about how to run a successful business instead of actually running their businesses. I wondered if other people picked up on that fact at all. Naturally, each of the websites had at least one troll – the generally disagreeable person who seems to delight in starting arguments just for the sake of the argument. I watched more than one discussion thread deteriorate into heated interactions complete with name-calling. What a wonderfully productive and mature way to spend valuable time, right?
I watched the dynamic of these sites unfold in very predictable patterns over and over again. Interestingly, the folks who actually seemed knowledgeable and had the experience and education to back up their comments were often ignored or dismissed. It appeared to me that these people were actually trying to help by offering real world advice. Yet, the usual suspects always seemed to quash these efforts with more jokes or useless diatribes. And, yes, the whole popularity contest reigned supreme. I guess some people just never outgrow that childish mindset.
The fact is that you really don’t know whom you are dealing with when you start chatting with people on the Internet. Just because I can claim to be a wealthy, respected surgeon does not make it so. Anyone who is the least bit dissatisfied with his real life can reinvent himself in chat rooms and forums. Why not? Who will possibly know the difference? I happen to know some people who do this regularly. I imagine that they began by simply stretching the truth just a little and then, over time, managed to create an entirely new “persona. ” Who cares if I lie about my job title or my success in life or business? I mean, where is the harm, really? Well, imagine if a struggling business owner relies on advice or information given as fact based on real experience or expertise when, in fact, it’s all a ruse. Oh, well, at least the person who made it all up gets to feel better about himself.
Not convinced? That’s ok. Don’t take my word for it. Do your own research. You should know that the Federal Trade Commission and other government agencies working to reduce cyber crimes have published numerous warnings about social and business networking sites as they pertain to Internet predators and identity thieves. This isn’t just geared toward kids and teenagers, either. Anyone at any time can pose as someone interested in your life or business and glean personal information about you that can be used to steal your identity. It happens every single day, and it’s not difficult at all to do. Oh, and don’t forget about the annoying junk mail you start to collect from people who have found your email address or other ways to contact you. I’ve received numerous messages from people asking me for personal information or just notifying me that they “want to get to know me better. ” Creepy!
If nothing else I have said so far has persuaded you to reconsider spending hours online posting comments on networking websites, then consider this: how can you possibly build a successful business if you are using up most or all of your valuable time chatting with unknown people? Wouldn’t your time and talent be better utilized in the pursuit of your dream? I finally realized this for myself, terminated my accounts and made far better use of my time – getting back behind my camera.
Keep in mind; there are specialized forums available on the Internet that actually are very beneficial. I am referring to technical or product forums targeted to particular industries. For example, I regularly visit photography forums to read equipment reviews written by other photographers. This information is invaluable when I am deciding what equipment to buy. My husband often visits medical forums that specifically relate to his medical condition so he can live a healthier life. In these cases, the Internet can be a plethora of information. However, you must still take care not to give out too much personal information and always double check what you find for accuracy.
If you are interested in sharing stories and jokes with anonymous and, possibly, dishonest or even dangerous people or engaging in philosophical debates on inane topics, then social networking on the web may be just the ticket for you. Just be extremely careful about the information you share. NEVER give out your address, social security number, bank information or any other personal information that may aid a thief in taking your identity. If, on the other hand, you are looking to exchange ideas or connect with authentic, successful people who are truly qualified to offer advice and suggestions for ways to improve your business, then you may want to consider researching the opportunities available in your community to network, in person, with other professionals and local business owners. Contact your local Small Business Administration office or Chamber of Commerce to help get you started.
Simply put, there is just no substitute for personal contact with people. Get out there and shake a few hands instead of spending hours in front of your computer. Here’s to your success!
Kim Balsman is a professional photographer, writer and owner of a small business – Balsman Photography, LLC. Kim’s background includes formal education and experience in communications, business, law, real estate and photography. Kim has offered her insight and experience on various topics within her expertise in media publications and by lecturing at entrepreneurial symposiums.