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FindLaw columnist Eric Sinrod writes regularly in this section on legal developments surrounding technology and the internet.
Once upon a time, and actually not that long ago, online social networking truly was the province of high school and college students. Those days are over, and whether the youth likes it or not, older generations now are rampant on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and other social networking sites like LinkedIn; who manage online social networking while they carry on other daily tasks.
The demand for online social networking has become so ubiquitous that a recent reported outage of severe Internet controls in China was greeted with enthusiasm as usually blocked socially networking platforms briefly opened up. While social networking does present a number of potential benefits, care must be taken that proper practices are followed, especially in the workplace.
Companies initially were reluctant to allow employees to engage in online social networking while at work. The concern was that they would not pay attention to their work functions, and as a consequence, their productivity would suffer. However, more recently, companies are "getting it"; understanding that social networking can be a valuable business tool.
Business owners and managers now recognize that social networking sites can provide an excellent launching pad to expand potential business contacts. Even a small business can focus on an audience of thousands of people with little investment or burden. Ultimately, major but inexpensive marketing campaigns can be initiated and promoted via social networking while companies can save on money.
Furthermore, targeted groups and individuals can be "touched" a bit more personally through socially networking. Indeed, businesses can foster connections between their customers, essentially creating their own fan base. You can see this when you search major companies on Facebook; many of them have their own fan page.
In addition, companies can position themselves as "ahead of the curve" with new ideas by way of social networking, thus enhancing their reputations. Social networking is a very effective way to disseminate information about new products and programs.
Even with all of these potential benefits coming into the consciousness of business leaders, valid concerns remain in terms of how social networking practices are integrated into the business world.
Employers still are concerned that if their employees spend time on social networking sites during the work day, they will do so at least in large part for purely personal purposes, and not while advancing business objectives. Perhaps to a lesser extent, companies may encounter bandwidth issues, as videos and other large files are posted and retrieved on social networking sites by employees.
Business owners also must be vigilant to make sure that employees do not inappropriately disparage or defame others (or the company, for that matter), and that they do not inadvertently or purposely disclose company intellectual property or trade secrets. Companies need to take care that employees do not fall victim to scams or cybercrime perpetrated through social networking sites.
For some companies, the solution still might be to ban social networking by employees. But as time goes on, the movement probably will be even further in the other direction. Thus, it is imperative that companies educate their employees as to the policies and practices that must be followed.
Not only should employers take technological steps such as updating anti-virus software on a regular basis and putting appropriate firewalls in place, they need to tell their employees specifically the types of social networking communications that are permissible and those that are not. Employees should be told which social networking sites can be used, the parameters in terms of content of communications, the allowed intended audience(s), and other related details. Employees also need to be informed that their work-related social networking will be monitored by the employer.
Companies should work with IT and legal professionals to come up with specific social networking policies for employees. Employees, in turn, should be given a written copy of the policies, and they should provide their written agreement to follow the policies.
Plainly, as social networking evolves, and as the nature of a given business changes over time, social networking policies will need to be revised and updated.
Fasten your seatbelts; welcome to the social networking future; full speed ahead.
Eric Sinrod is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP (http://www.duanemorris.com) where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. His Web site is http://www.sinrodlaw.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod's columns, please send an email to him with Subscribe in the Subject line.
This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's law firm or its individual partners.