Facebook, MySpace Become Work Tools For Some

Think you can't do work with public social networking websites? I just did. This story was almost entirely coordinated via Facebook and MySpace as I added sources as "friends", sent information back and forth and set up interviews via the sites' messaging function, and scoured the sites themselves for information.

As the young users of social networking sites enter the workforce, they're going to want to use them at work whether the IT department likes it or not, and many already are. Social networks are already growing a reputation as a stalking ground for prospective employers, but sites like Facebook also have potential to build and foster business relationships even after an employee gets hired. After all, work is often social.

Take Lisa Bopst, who works in the training department at Aerotek Staffing Agency. Her company encourages employees to use social networks for business purposes, so long as they keep their profiles respectable. There are currently 582 Aerotek employees in the company's "network" on Facebook, which one can't join unless they have an Aerotek e-mail address.

Bopst said Facebook's messaging system is a good way to keep in touch with the new hires she meets every week because it is "less formal than using work e-mail." She's also communicated with prospective hires through the site, despite the fact that she doesn't work in human resources. She helped someone get a job interview in the last week after some correspondence.

Bopst is evidence people are using Facebook and MySpace for much more than just looking for jobs, as most people do on LinkedIn. They're sharing interests, blogging, and communicating with one another via the sites' messaging systems. They're creating career- and workplace-oriented groups and networks of like-minded people and work colleagues.

Soon they may be installing widgets on their Facebook homepages that help them do their jobs, like a document sharing widget from Zoho, a to-do list widget, a calendar widget, or group chat. Enterprise apps have the potential to follow. Facebook allows third parties, including enterprises, to host Facebook apps in their own environment, be stored on their own servers, and control who is able to use the applications.

As social networks, Facebook and MySpace's biggest uses may continue to be maintaining relationships. "Just a minute ago, I got an add from [Web services vendor StrikeIron's director of ISV and developer programs] Dave Nielsen, who I worked with when he was at PayPal," said Brian Goldfarb, now a group product manager at Microsoft and a member of Microsoft's 17,232 strong Facebook network.

"[Facebook's] interface is simple, is more effective for my work style then LinkedIn, which I use only for sourcing." This might happen at the expense of sites like LinkedIn. While LinkedIn is still growing, there have been a few high profile techie defections to Facebook, like IP communications advocate and expert Jeff Pulver.

While these sites help colleagues keep in touch, they also carry threats of compliance violations, security breaches, and IP leaks. Communications on public social networking sites can and most often do occur outside the firewall, where an employer has no control over what is being said. A stolen password could allow an intruder to controlled networks and gain access to all sorts of information about users. And people describing their jobs could tip their hats to projects that aren't open to public knowledge.

Facebook isn't likely in its present guise to be deemed safe enough to create corporate widgets that would turn them into any sort of heavy duty business portal. However, public social networking sites are important as templates for how businesses might want to do social networking of their own, behind the firewall, in that they show how to be successful while maintaining a level of privacy and security.

Work networks are closed to those without work e-mails, and users have very granular control over how much of their profile they want shown and who can contact them. "It has a lot of different privacy controls to how you might want to shield yourself, and there's a lot of transparency once you become friends," said Burton Group analyst Mike Gotta.

Another stumbling block to Facebook is there's a risk that social networks can take away from productivity, keeping minds away from work, as much as they can help. Just as some companies are wary of YouTube, there's a rightful place for wariness of sites like Facebook and MySpace, which are dominated by ideals of friendly sociability, not necessarily by work relationships.

The top apps on Facebook, for example, include one to compare a user to a celebrity and what someone's fortune is for a day. On MySpace, users share surveys with questions like "Did you take a nap today?"

As a result, not all companies are like Aerotek and Microsoft. The page for environmental labaratory analysis company EMSL Analytics' network says that more people must join in order for a page to be created for it. Says a young employee there:

"There are not enough people in my work network for me to [use Facebook for work]. A girl in my office and I send each other nonsense and Dane Cook quotes from 10 feet apart." That's more virtual water cooler than real business tool, and that's still a dominant paradigm for social networking sites.

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