One of the most fundamental rules of social networking etiquette: You must carefully consider who you "friend" or "connect" with on services like Facebook and LinkedIn. According to career experts, the people with whom you associate, in many ways, reflect upon you.
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Deciding who to connect with, however, can be a tricky endeavor, since social networks have grown to include people from your personal and professional lives. Some people choose to connect with colleagues on Facebook, while others decide that they want to keep that network for just friends and family.
When it comes to social networking etiquette, the building block is having a consistent policy and then communicating it clearly to current and prospective contacts who connect with you on social networks, says Kirsten Dixson, a reputation management and online identity expert, who co-authored the book Career Distinction, Stand Out By Building Your Brand.
Here are some tips Dixson told CIO.com for crafting an online contact strategy that works for you, and how to handle the sticky questions that can arise around introductions.
1. Decide on a Friend Strategy for Both LinkedIn and Facebook
Before you establish criteria for "friending" people, you should look closely at the social network and the content of yours that flows through it. For this article, we focused primarily on LinkedIn and Facebook. Twitter, the emerging social network, allows people to follow you whether you like it or not (by its default settings).
On LinkedIn, users don't trade the same types of personal information as they do on Facebook. But you should realize that the LinkedIn contacts you make do matter, Dixson says.
"Everything has to do with the company you keep," she says. "So you really do want to think about who you accept or let in to your network, whether it's on Facebook or LinkedIn."
On Facebook, some users brush aside the need to be discerning about friends. Because of the social network's robust privacy settings, they argue, you can friend anyone and give the person limited access to your content. So you could allow friends to view your party pictures, while blocking them from your boss's view.
Dixson warns against relying solely on such a strategy. For one, career experts will tell you that privacy settings are hardly foolproof. The cardinal rule: Somehow, someway, all information may be accessed. Secondly, because Facebook is a more closed-off network, the friend list that you garner there seems even more significant to people because it tends to be more exclusive.
Also, how much energy do you really want to commit to setting all those Facebook privacy controls?
2. Communicate a Clear Policy to Potential Contacts
On LinkedIn, some people will connect with anyone and everyone, while others only connect with personal contacts. On Facebook, some people decide to friend their personal friends, but not their colleagues or customers. Conversely, others decide that they don't put anything scandalous enough on Facebook to warrant keeping anyone out of their network.
The key is to communicate your policy clearly and concisely when people try to friend you on Facebook or "connect" with you on LinkedIn. Dixson recalls requesting a colleague become friends with her on Facebook, and being politely turned down. The friend responded that while she valued her working relationship with Dixson, and considered her a friend, she didn't friend anyone from work on Facebook.
"And it totally wasn't a problem for me at all," Dixson says. "She was clear, up front, and I totally respect that. Others will too as long as you are clear."
3. Don't Ignore Friends, or Friends of Friends
While it's acceptable to reject a person based on your social networking friend criteria, you should always respond to the person if he or she took the time to write you a personal note in the friend or connection invitation.
"Etiquette is about making people feel comfortable, not ignoring them," Dixson says. "Especially if it's a colleague or a friend of a friend, if you just ignore them, that's problematic."
On the other hand, you will also find "friend spammers" who want to connect with anyone and everyone. If someone like this sends you a canned invitation, or provides no indication of how he or she might know you, Dixson says you can feel free to ignore it.
4. If the Answer Is No, Offer Alternatives
For the people you do reject, it's nice to offer alternatives. So, for instance, if you say, "I do not connect with work contacts on Facebook, but please connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter," that might be a nice option, Dixson says.
5. Be Specific When Sending Invitations
We've discussed friend etiquette with the presumption that you are the one in the position to choose, but what if you're courting a new friend or connection whom you think might be on the fence about accepting? In this case, Dixson says, you should explain how you know the person. It will make a world of difference in having that person accept your request.
Sometimes, a well-intentioned friend or connection request may be turned down because the person receiving it honestly can't place the person based upon memory.
"I might have met someone who saw me speak at an event or read my book, but if they don't say so in the request, I definitely ignore it," Dixson says. So include a personal note when in doubt, and be specific.
6. Give a Heads-Up When Brokering Connections Between Friends
In the business world, many people like to play professional matchmaker on social networks. Both Facebook and LinkedIn offer the capability to "suggest a friend" or "introduce" one through a mutual connection, respectively.
If you are introducing two people who don't know each other, you must realize that you have put one of your friends in an tough position — you have made it very difficult for him or her to say no without feeling like a jerk. As a result, unless you're 100 percent sure that the connection will be a no-brainer for the two people, you should alert your friend ahead of time, via phone, e-mail, IM or a private message on LinkedIn or Facebook, Dixson advises.
"That will happen a lot on LinkedIn," Dixson says. "Again, the key to good etiquette in this case: Don't make people feel awkward."
C.G. Lynch covers Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other social and consumer Web technologies for CIO. You can follow him on Twitter: @cglynch.