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Don’t Social Network Yourself Into Court

What is Social Networking?

Social networking can take many forms: blogs, podcasts, videos, text messages and others. In its purest form, social networking involves making connections between people, based upon commonalities. The commonalities may be personal, professional, geographic or any one of a thousand other factors. Some of my social networks include Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and my blog readers. Social networks build communities, solidify relationships and provide resources. There are actually very few things that can boast an ROI even remotely approaching that of a correctly deployed social networking strategy.

Social Networking and the Law
With the popularity of social networking at an all-time high, I often get questions about how the law applies to social networking.  In my experience, what the person really wants to know is "Will social networking land me or my company in court." Strictly speaking, many social networking activities that violate the rights of others are unlikely to land you in court, whereas activities that are otherwise legal might end up making another social networker so angry that they sue you on principal. At the very least, legal but inappropriate behavior will likely get you tossed out of your social network and/or irreparably damage your reputation.

The Law vs. the Rules
While it is indeed advisable to obtain at least some background on the law regarding contracts, intellectual property infringement and defamation, probably the most important factor in keeping you out of social networking hot water is to investigate, and closely follow, the rules of etiquette with regard to the particular social network you are using.  Be aware, each type and subtype of social networking has its own set of rules. Confounding the problem is the fact that these rules are rarely written down anywhere.

Learn the Unwritten Rules
The best way to learn the rules is to  "lurk."  Most social networking sites allow you to sign up and just take it all in for a while. What type of language to people use? The general rule is to not say anything you would not say at the dinner table. What is the frequency and content of the information people provide to the social network? Primarily social networks often view commercially motivated, or overly frequent contributions, as spam.

Staying Out of Court
Probably the biggest factor in ensuring your social networking does not land you in court is to not make anyone angry. Spirited debate is fine and often even encouraged. The most important thing to remember is to not cross the line, remain professional regardless of what anyone else does. Do not get sucked into arguments with professional fight-pickers, called "trolls." Do not bad-mouth anyone or any business. 

Be yourself.
Hopefully you can convey at least a little of your personality through your social network, while remaining professional. It is a lot easier to be yourself and social networkers are notorious for ferreting out phonies. While there are obviously no guarantees, following the unwritten rules of your particular social network, acting in a professional manner and being yourself will serve you well in your quest to build your network, hopefully without the time and cost involved with fighting a frivolous lawsuit.

Brett Trout

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