Social networking, Internet-based web sites such as Twitter and Facebook, is a relatively new phenomenon which has taken over the social lives of many in a similar manner to e-mail taking over the art of letter writing and communication. It has become the main method many people use to stay in touch with family, school friends and work colleagues both over long distances and during times when they cannot meet up in person. For some, fortunately relatively few in comparison to the numbers involved, it has become the only form of social intercourse they participate in and has replaced the television as the number one occupation for evenings spent at home alone. For others it is a distraction from the pressures of everyday life, a form of diary detailing their feelings and actions or, again in relatively small numbers, a means to create a different, better personality and present it to the outside world. Social networking sites are generally integral, offering a wide variety of activities the user can spend their time on, from the accepted status updates through the ability to comment, to exchange information, to write about events and, to a certain extent without any extra cost, to play online games either alone or in competition with others.
The most popular social networking sites tend to be used both my private individuals and by companies bringing their products and services to a wider audience though commercial Pages, sponsored messages and direct advertising. For private individuals the use of social networking sites is clearly a personal matter, and time is allocated to the various sites according to both need and desire. Commercially instigated networking, on the other hand, is a very professional activity requiring a solid base knowledge both of product or service, target audience and marketing strategies. The two forms of social networking – private and commercial – have very few overlapping entities.
The one thing which must immediately be accepted is that social networking, whether on one single site or across several, requires a good deal of dedication and time. For the private individual merely updating their status is not enough, there is the desire to communicate, the need to stay in touch with other people on a Friends List or in a Timeline, to see what they are doing and, often, to comment on their activities as well as sharing with yet more people. A private individual with a basic Timeline connection to one hundred people within roughly the same time zone can expect to receive new updates every few minutes, depending on how active their friends are. For some the feeling that they might miss something, a message or a relatively important status update results in constant checking of the social network to see what has changed, what is new and to add their own viewpoint, their own activities, events and experiences to the mass. The sight of people walking along the street or standing in shop doorways, riding the bus or waiting in traffic checking their smart phones is no longer something which excites interest, it is part and parcel of daily life. People who are not constantly checking through their chosen social networking site are out of the cycle, out of reach and out of touch.
Companies using the commercial facilities offered by various social networking sites tend to have a specialized team of experts who are dedicated to both publicity through such means and who have a certain background knowledge of the functioning of the Internet and IT. The creation and maintenance of a company web site, the constant updating of information, contact with customers through a Help Desk or the completion of contracts online is no longer the only activity possible on the Internet. A company which does not have a Facebook Page or which is not present on LinkedIn, Twitter or a wealth of other social networking sites is no longer considered present on the Internet. Social networking sites bring the company closer to the customer, allow for a greater level of interaction and an almost immediate means of getting a new product accepted in the marketplace. As with private individuals using social networking sites, a commercial use requires dedication as well as excellent background knowledge and a good deal of time. Most companies present on the Internet will have a team dedicated solely to this task, including individuals responsible just for Twitter or Facebook and constant interaction with those contacting them or, in the case of Twitter, Mentioning (the inclusion of an @ name in a Tweet) them.
The one thing both individuals and commercial enterprises suing social networking sites have in common is the amount of time involved in keeping up to date or in touch with a long list of family, friends and online acquaintances. The temptation to just quickly check and see what is happening is constantly in the back of everyone’s mind once they have built up a stable base of contacts, especially when some of these contacts live in other time zones, outside the normal two or three hours to either side of their own time zone. The working and leisure hours of people living in Australia or New Zealand are different to those of people living in the United States or Europe and anyone who wishes to experience live connections so far outside their own time zone needs to be available outside of normal leisure times, often during times when they would normally be working.
For anyone with an Internet connection in the workplace, the temptation to just quickly log on to a social networking site and check what’s happening ‘just in case’ is extremely strong. A quick check, however, can mean that something which should be done for the company, for their employer, during company hours, during the time when they are paid to concentrate on company matters has been relegated in importance, or shifted to a later time. Company time is being utilized to check on a purely private activity which, for many companies, is an abuse of privileges, a waste of company time and a straight loss of that person’s effectiveness for the company. A distracted employee does not work as effectively as a dedicated, concentrated employee. The use of company facilities, such as an Internet connection rather than a personal smart phone or similar, also rates as a loss for the company and, for many, an abuse of facilities, of trust.
The updating of status during company time is also, for most companies, dangerous in that information could be given out, working practices, the relationships between various colleagues and their employers or fellow workers and similar. The interaction between a worker and a seemingly reliable or trustworthy friend in a similar branch of business could lead to an inadvertent or planned breach of confidential information, especially when the employee is disgruntled or unhappy with their workplace, company policy or, quite simply, experiencing a bad day. That a person on the receiving end of information, innocent status updates or otherwise, may not be who they claim to be is a fact of modern life. Internet identities which do not match reality are a commonplace rather than an exception, especially when bearing in mind that Facebook, easily the largest social networking site in the world, has admitted that up to eighty million user accounts could be fakes; people or companies hiding behind an invented identity.
Faced with legal and contractual difficulties, plus a high number of employees with Internet access though company facilities or through their own private means, it is almost impossible for a medium to large sized company to keep tabs on each and every Internet-related activity. Various spy, logging or tracking software systems are available to keep a close eye on such activity, but these are all limited to after-the-fact reporting and are labor intensive. The easiest, but my no means foolproof, means of keeping social networking activity on company time to a minimum is to ban it outright or, when a more liberal company view is taken, allow trusted employees a limited online access window, with the provision that nothing concerning company business, policy or normal events taken from the working day are included in status updates, tweets or posts to any social networking site.
For each and every company with constant Internet connections for their employees there is a loss though online activity, both in productivity and efficiency. This loss, both in time and funds, is also present where employees use their own facilities to gain Internet access. It is difficult, however, for a company to regulate whether an employee be granted time to update their private social networking sites, or to check whether they are abusing trust and company facilities and updating on the sly. Regardless of which, as every single employee is present during work hours on the company time and is paid by them to fulfill a certain and specific function, the use of social networking sites during company time should not be acceptable. Social networking, for private individuals, is a personal matter which should be limited to their own time, to their leisure hours, and not taken at the cost of their employers.