The dismal economy has brought thoughts of the unemployment line to people in nearly every profession, and it has made many of them feel the need to constantly glance over their shoulders, notes Nina Buik, a careers expert and president of the Hewlett-Packard user group Connect. In this type of economic climate, everyone can begin to seem like a potential competitor, and some people will react by burrowing into their cubicles and keeping a low profile.

That's the wrong way to go, maintains Buik. Instead, she advises employees to connect with others both inside and outside of the office by joining a user group and using the tool of social networking. Buik spoke to contributing editor Jamie Eckle.

How can those whose social skills just aren't well developed participate in social networking? It's the same as with any new situation. The easiest way for people to participate in social media venues is to really familiarize themselves with the site they want to utilize. Look and listen to what's going on in the community. What are the conversations people are engaged in, and who are the participants? As they become more comfortable with the site, then it's probably a good time to start participating in other ways, such as adding content, commenting and beginning to cultivate relationships.

What are the best tools currently available? Of course, the most common and broad-based tools are sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, all of which have high membership numbers and can serve to start useful dialogues with company representatives as well as individuals. For a more targeted approach, use sites that can serve as both a support system and resource for your personal brand.

There are countless sites out there, so try to find one that caters to your needs and will give you more visibility and insight into your industry. For example, we just launched a social networking site on Connect called myCommunity. It's a place for the members of our organization to come together and post conversations, read blogs specific to HP technology and engage with each other.

Another example of a niche social networking site would be something like Advogato, which is a forum for those interested in open-source software development. Additionally, sites such as Wikipedia and Mashable.com offer lists of popular social networking sites with brief descriptions that might be helpful in finding a site that is a good fit for you.

What about user groups? How active does one have to be in a user group for it to be truly beneficial? The great thing about user groups is that members can choose their own level of participation. In my personal experience with Connect, some of our users only participate when they have a question they feel other users might be able to help address, and that's OK because our site is the perfect forum for this type of dialogue. On the other hand, many of our members use the site daily to keep abreast of what's going on in the industry, to foster and grow relationships or to contribute to conversations in the community.



Social Networking No-no's
Nina Buik cites the following rules for people using social networking for career purposes.

Don't bring up politics or use vulgar or sexually charged language. You'd think this would be common sense, but it's not, Buik says. Keep it professional. Know what is appropriate to share and what is not. People who use vulgar language, discuss their views on politics or complain about work on networking sites often alienate and send the wrong message to current and even potential employers. "If you want to see an example of how this can go terribly wrong, simply Google the term ' Cisco Fatty,'" she says.

Don't talk to strangers! What your mother told you as a child still holds true as an adult, says Buik. Avoid inviting people to be a contact if you don't know them or haven't engaged in conversation with them before. "It's my general rule not to accept friends unless I've exchanged a business card with them at some point," she says.

Avoid split-digital-personality disorder. Stay consistent across all social media platforms. People often present a different profile on Facebook than they do on LinkedIn or Twitter. Keep in mind, though, that employers, clients and colleagues can easily seek you out on all social media platforms - and with tools such as Pipl.com, this can be done simultaneously. It can seem odd if they find vastly different profiles or levels of professionalism across various online communities.

Don't put it all out there. Your boss and clients don't need to see pictures of you being picked up off a barroom floor. If you are going to have these people as connections on sites such as Facebook, then learn to utilize the privacy/profile settings. You can control who is permitted to view your pictures, wall posts, status updates - essentially everything.