by Esther Schindler

Business Social Networking Geography: Does It Matter Where My Contacts Are?

Aug 18, 20086 mins
Enterprise Architecture

Although the Internet is global, and you may do business with people anywhere in the world, most people tend to look for people-networks close to home. Or do they? Should they? If the point of social networking is to connect with other people, ought it to matter where we are?

I once worked with a lovely single woman who was looking for Mr. Right. One Monday morning, she told me a story about a gentleman she met over the weekend. He was smart, kind and shared her interests. She added sadly, “Too bad it won’t work out. We’re geographically incompatible. I live in Peoria [a northwest Phoenix suburb] and he’s in Chandler [in the southeast part of town].”

At the time, it reminded me of the old joke, in which a young swain writes a letter to his ladylove (obviously it’s old; one wrote letters):

Mary—For the chance to gaze into your eyes, I would swim the deepest river. To touch your cheek, I would cross the widest desert. For the tiniest chance to kiss your perfect lips, I would climb the highest mountain.—John.

P.S. I’ll come over to your house on Saturday night, if it doesn’t rain.

The nice thing about Life Online is that geography doesn’t have to matter. My brother-in-law didn’t wonder about whether he was geographically compatible with his own ladylove; he met her through eHarmony, corresponded with her using instant messaging, talked on the phone a few times… and then drove 300 miles from Wyoming to Nebraska to meet her. Three months later, they got married. (That’s your cue to say, “Awwww!” Especially since they’re still married, three years later, and for good reason; my sister-in-law is wonderful.)

That’s at a personal level, though. What about business? Should location be a key factor in acquiring business expertise?

I’m probably not the right person to answer the question authoritatively. A side effect of my living inside Internet packets rather than in a physical community—I don’t know my next-door-neighbor’s name—is that I pay little attention to where someone is. I’ve been a full time telecommuter for most of my career (which explains why I’ve written so many articles on how to do telecommuting right). I don’t care about someone’s geography; I only care how good they are.

Which is a lot of throat clearing for the item that inspired me today: a press release from the U.K.-based TalkBizNow, which aims to take on LinkedIn.

While the press release touted the TalkBiz feature set—which seems perfectly nice—that’s not what their announcement made me contemplate. Instead, I thought about choices of business social networks made by people in different locales. If we’re all in one big happy online world, where you can find a brilliant programmer in Poland, do we need an “American” LinkedIn and a “European” one? Is that reasonable—since we do tend to network with the people we know—or a not-so-hot sign, since we’re all supposed to be moving towards a global economy?

Note that I’m not speaking here of largely personal social networks, such as Facebook, even though some of them are expanding into business. Nor am I addressing how Gen-X or Gen-Y users employ those networks. Or even the issue of the problems of relative intimacy of social network connections. And certainly not those which are serve local “where’s a nearby Thai restaurant?” needs, such as Yelp or BooRah. I’m looking just at business-centric social networks.

I knew that some business social networks, like Xing, are far more popular in Europe than they are in the U.S., and vice versa. But if we’re one world and using one Internet… well duh, does that make sense?

So, naturally, the first thing I did was get in touch with a friend in Germany, using IM and Skype. (Does that make you giggle, too? About the irony of asking, “Does geography matter?” of someone on the other side of the planet?) My longtime friend Volker Weber explained that geography means even more to Europeans than it does to those of us in the United States. We might be happy to find someone in Chicago if we live in Indianapolis, but “countries” trump “states,” he said. Germans look for German social networks, and it’d never occur to my friend to look at one based in the U.K. “In Germany there are studiVZ, schülerVZ [for school kids] and Lokalisten,” Volker told me. “All three of them are larger than anything else, including Facebook and MySpace.” In fact, he said, social networks are organized geographically on an even lower level. Lokalisten is strong in Munich, said Volker, but almost nobody near him (outside Frankfurt) uses it.

Volker argued that geography matters. A lot. We do want our social networks to be close by (particularly if you’re looking for a janitor, which I suppose does require them to stop by the office). And, probably, most adults’ networks will be largely local just because most business connections are local. Contacts are likely someone you worked with down the street, at the last company. People who provide remote services (such as, say, freelance journalists) and whose livelihood relies on schmoozing at conventions (such as salespeople) are obvious exceptions, but most IT workers stay put. And they rarely move across the wet bit.

Despite his logic, I find the whole thing curious. If the point of collaboration is to find people with shared interests and relevant knowledge, do you really care if the person is in London? Aren’t we just as wise all over the planet? Yesterday, I corresponded with a colleague in Melbourne whom I’ve known for 20 years but met In Real Life perhaps six times. If I had depended on tools and social networks to connect us, they’d have failed utterly.

There are plenty of reasons for social networks to fragment based on shared interests. I’m far more likely to turn to DZone for developer news than I am to look at Digg; I’ll look at DotNetKicks if isn’t granular enough for my .NET interests. But I’m not really convinced that geography ought to be the major defining factor.

What say you?