©10 The Media Desk
Like it or not, online networking is now part of the social and business landscape. Through the power of that tool they all call the Internet, you can now instantly connect with people that you haven't heard from since third grade and who now live on the other side of the world, or you can meet possible business contacts from other time zones or just across the street that you may never have encountered just a couple of years ago.
That is simply a fact of life now. It would seem that everybody, and every Thing is online. Or at least a sizable enough percentage of them to make those that are not "wired" seem quaint.
And, from out here in the cheap seats, it looks like, on the whole, that there is more good to it than bad.
But what if you are not comfortable with the idea. Maybe you enjoy your privacy, and wish others to respect it as well. You tend to slip away when others around you begin sharing the smallest details of their lives with each other. You have no intention of diving in headfirst to update the world on the quality of the cheese on your sandwich at lunch. Is there a place for you in a world where people post notices that read something to the effect of "BRB off to RR"?
Short answer first: Yes.
And now the long answer: Yes, there is, and we'll go through a few suggestions about how you... to paraphrase a Bible verse if you don't mind... how you can be "in the World but not of the world" online.
Tell us all about yourself
To start, go ahead and join the madness. Sign up and get a My-Face-Linked-Tweet-In-Space-Book page. The vast majority of these things are free, at least for the basic part of the service that everybody uses, and it only takes a few minutes to get going. It won't hurt. Honest. Well, at least it isn't too painful.
And thereby comes the rub. It doesn't hurt to sign up. But it can later.
Yes you can sign up, but you don't have to include every detail of your life.
No, you don't. And it is better if you don't.
Some of these services will ask you for your middle name, where you went to grade school, your birth date, telephone number and so on. If it does require a phone number, various directory assistance numbers seem to be popular if the service rejects the old standard 555 fictional exchange.
In most cases you do not have to list information like this. The fields are there, as suggestions or options, supposedly to help others find you. If the service requires a birthday, think about it and maybe do some looking around. You'd be surprised how popular 4 July and 25 December are for birthdays on the online services, just list your actual year to 'prove' you're an adult. The same is true for schools, more than one person has borrowed the fictitious "Roosevelt Franklin Elementary School" of Sesame Street fame or Miskatonic University as invented by HP Lovecraft.
Of course if you are creating a personal page for business purposes, you may wish to not be quite so clever, but most reputable business networking sites do not require that specific of information for exactly the reasons we'll go into momentarily.
There are those individuals, and usually they are those that are given to the 'overly personal chat' type of behavior, who will list everything the services ask for, and then volunteer some more, such as their parent's names. You do not have to look too far online to see the names of children and grandchildren, with their birthdates and schools listed, and occasionally even a photo of said child. Now, think about it: There is "tempting fate" and then there is just being plain stupid about it. And again, we'll come back to that.
Yes, there are those that see the Web and all of its various attributes as nothing more than an modern update to the old back yard "gossip fence" of song and story, or at least of Snuffy Smith comics. The personal information relayed without hesitation on some of these sites can be staggering, and, to some degree, baffling. One has to wonder how anybody would feel compelled to share some of the most mundane aspects of their life with the world at large, until you realize that they probably do the same thing in doctor's office waiting rooms, with people they just met, with an entire room full of perfect strangers listening in.
And one of the things some need to be reminded of is that comments and photos posted online never actually go away, and in many cases, can be seen by very nearly everybody, even if initially posted in a 'friends only' space, it can be quoted and reposted in an open environment, over which the initial sender may have no control. Which means even innocent remarks can be taken out of context and cause headaches down the road. Something else that needs to be taken into consideration is there are proposed laws in the EU and elsewhere that will require providers to keep all online records archived and retrievable for up to seven years. If the regulation passes, the US and others will likely follow suit with rules of their own.
But there is no need for anybody who is not so inclined to contribute to the volumes of inane chatter online. Especially in the professional setting of a business site or page. Instead of going into fabulously explicit detail, complete with photos, about how you only purchase fair trade organic coffee for your waiting room and brew it with solar power, mention that you have free coffee, then provide a link to another page so that those interested can review the information if so desired. Along the same lines, perhaps your child's garage band recorded your theme song, and maybe it the greatest example of improvisational jazz ever conceived, but instead of playing every time the page opens, perhaps ask the reader if they want to hear it, or even see the video, while remembering that even on a broadband connection, sometimes things take a bit longer to load than is wont, and if nothing else on your page works until the video is loaded and playing, potential customers may be on their way elsewhere.
You may think that the illustrations we've mentioned are imaginary and thought of solely for this article. Sadly, no, there are plenty of abundant examples in the wilderness of the Web. Both on business and personal pages, and, believe it or not, government agencies.
Mandatory Security Time Out
We can't go any further before we talk about two of the great scourges of online information. Identity Theft and Data Mining. And both operate online for essentially the same reason. Profit.
With the theft side of things, the bad guys are looking to simply steal your identity to either create debit in your name, or to rape your bank account, or both. In either case, you are left to clean up the mess and prove you are really you, and it can take years to undo the damage that was often done in a single day.
And it isn't just individuals that have their identity stolen, businesses are often victimized in the same ways, and sometimes they don't even notice until some gigantic bill comes due that they never heard of before. Then audits and backtracking may prove a crime was committed against them. In the case of either one, usually by the time the victim notices, the criminals are long gone and prosecution may be impossible.
Having said that, we'll say this: A business has to have real contact information online. Actual addresses (physical and mailing), telephone and fax numbers, email contacts, and so on, which makes it fairly easy to forge that information in a document to another business, and thereby establish a fraudulent account, which can then be skimmed for thousands of dollars worth of merchandise or even cash, before the scheme is exposed. And even so called verification services can be had by sophisticated crooks.
Which brings us to Data Mining.
Who you are, or what your business is, is worth its weight in electrons to those who are seeking to sell real goods and services. If you mention in your online profile that you enjoy golf, get ready for advertisements of everything and anything related to the sport ranging from a sale on golf shoes to vacations to play the Old Course at St. Andrews.
Not only are flashing banner ads and pop ups that talk to you annoying, they can also stay active on your machine even after you close them and send information back to a third party about everything you do on the web. Script blockers, firewalls, and browser security add-ons can limit them, but nothing can ensure than all of them are rendered inert. And yes, some of the 'aps' found on various social networking sites have malware of their own on board that you are agreeing to when you play the game. And if you don't believe it, pick the game of your choice and read their End User License Agreement (EULA). The best advice is to simply NOT play them.
The worst case scenario is that a rouge program from one of these sources, perhaps even unbeknownst to the host of the game, gets into your machine, or even into your business network, and transforms your computer into a mindless spam-spewing robot, or uses a tracking program called a 'keylogger' to skim your banking information which is then sent back to its master for use at their leisure.
Now... down to business.
Now that you've bitten the bullet and gone ahead and put together a page touting the fact that you powerwash widgets with organic fair trade sea cucumber ink from a sustainable farm that uses wind power, you want to make it so people notice it and at least take a look at your service.
That's the whole idea right? Exposure. Word of mouth. Get your name out there. Free advertising. And so on.
Yes it is.
But you're still not done. You're out there, but nobody will ever find you unless they do a search for cucumber ink washed widgets. And then again, on some of these sites, they may search for "coal mine" and you'll come up as well. Some of the services seem to use the same classification logic as the yellow part of the old phonebook.
The best thing to do is look for those of similar interests in what are usually called 'groups' in the social networks, and 'related fields' on the business ones. Of course every site has its own buzzwords, but they are generally in that vein, and you'll figure them out quickly.
On most of these services, if you 'befriend' somebody (whatever the site calls it and they are all similar but different), they will often 'friend' you back, then you can see their friends, and they can see you. And so on. Before too long, you'll have a web of contacts, and every one of those contacts has contacts, and there you go.
You have Networked!
Now when you post a Spring special on "squid ink washing", more people will see it, and somebody may call and that call may translate into a purchase.
But remember when you post updates and notices, do NOT spam everybody all the time about everything. Which means, no matter how tempting it is to use an automated 'robot' program to send out something every twenty minutes, don't do it. Over posting will not only get you 'un-friended' quicker than just about anything else, it may get you banned from the system. When you do send out an update, make it meaningful or at least interesting. (and remember to spell everything correctly too!)
One last thing to think about when you are putting together, or updating, your business website or page, or even your personal information on these sites, what sort of impression are you giving to those that do not already know you. This page will be the first chance they have to see and judge you and your business. If you are a professional of some description, do you really think it is a good idea to "pimp" your page? If something is "trendy" there is a very good chance that it will also become tiresomely overdone quickly as well, case in point "faux painting" walls with sponges, yes it was "all the rage" a few years ago, and now the companies that make concealer paints are doing great business as people cover it up. Never mind the information on your page, if the first thing they see, or hear, is obnoxious, they may never get to your information. If it is hard to read, such as red text on an orange background, or in some font that looks like ancient Celtic runes, nobody may ever read it.
Another thing to consider, will your page print? In many cases, people will still print things out so they have the address and directions, or maybe even your carefully hand drawn map, so when they are out and about on the town they can find you.
This writer knows of a restaurant who went all out on their new website to make it as "gee whiz" as it could possibly be, and it is, complete with music that will not shut off and animated flowers around their logo. Which is all fine and dandy, but it will not print. There is no way to make the printer see the Flash presentation and render it to paper. No address, no phone number, no menu, nothing comes out other than the URL at the top of the page to show what it is. The bottom line on that, they lost some business because of their web page design.
Another problem with "trendy pimping" a page is that not everybody uses the same browser these days. Your animation may work fine in Opera, but come out the wrong color in Mozilla and Chrome, and be blocked in IE as malware, and not load at all on a mobile device. Is that the way you really want it to be? The cross-platform operability of a page, even a social networking page, isn't just a buzz word now, it is reality. If your shopping cart doesn't work in Safari, then you just eliminated every teacher on break in the school lounges that have Apple machines for staff use as a potential customer.
The best rule for a professional or business site is still KISS, yes the old "Keep It Simple..." rule.
That and: Remember Your Mission. Why are you doing it? If the reason the page exists is to get information to customers, present the information up front and uncluttered and unless you are a programmer who specializes in animated flowers or dancing cows, you may want to keep that sort of thing to a minimum as well.
For the general public, a clean, sharp, professional presentation is probably better in the long run, unless you are selling cutting edge freestyle skateboarding accessories. It is always a good idea to consider your audience before and after putting your page together. And if you want to have it both ways, one easy on the eyes page for Mom and Dad and the other for the fourteen year old wheel-grinder with a flaming skull laughing at you from the menu scrollbar, go for it, make two pages.
When it is all said and done, sit back and look at it like a customer. If something on the page draws attention to itself, is it supposed to? If not, does it need to be there?
Have somebody else check it out. Can they find the link for your store hours or shipping rates for online businesses? If the button to click to buy whatever it is is hidden under an endless menu list of options, they may never click on it because they can more easily find their browser's Back button and go to another site.
And if that is the case, then we have all just wasted our time.
Let's hope not, thank you.
Further Note: The Author is NOT an expert on anything in particular, nor does it play one on TV. However, the author is forcing himself to engage in online social networking both for business as well as personal use. Thank you
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