In May 2006, after reading this article in the New Yorker, I joined Facebook, which at that time was primarily used by students. Not being a student, I found very few people to friend, so the account lay dormant for 18 months until Facebook really took off as a direct competitor to MySpace.
At first, I only friended people I knew very well and had met in person—and I didn't receive that many requests from strangers anyway. Then I gradually and tentatively started friending people I had virtual relationships with, but had not met, feeling oddly like I was using the site "wrong." (Facebook used to ask for confirmation on how you knew someone, and if you couldn't verify from a pre-selected list of options, it reprimanded you. Seriously!)
Then maybe 6 months ago, I witnessed what Robert Brewer, editor of WritersMarket.com, was doing. He had a few thousand friends (and now has maxed out at 5,000!), and he had an amazing network of really cool people who were engaged, supportive, and excited about his work (particularly Poetic Asides). Plus he shared endearing and personable information that really developed him as a "real" person, without being indiscrete or falling into the TMI trap.
I suddenly questioned my Facebook strategy. What was I really protecting anyway? I was already Facebook friends with current and former colleagues, former classmates I hadn't seen in 20 years, and others who I don't know any better (on a personal level) than someone who follows my writing through this blog or Writer's Digest.
Plus I adopted the philosophy many years ago that I would avoid posting anything online (even in a "private" network) that I wouldn't be comfortable sharing with the world.
So I decided to open up the strategy and accept friend requests from people who were already friends with other friends, who I had met at conferences, who were readers of my blog, who had taken an online class with me, and/or anyone who included a brief note with their request. (Click here to friend me.)
Here are three tips on having an open Facebook strategy, particularly for people who might have a book, product, service, or message to spread.
1. To manage a growing number of friends, make sure that you tag everyone as part a group. You can do this immediately when people request to be your friend, or you can always apply and change/add tags later. Here's a screenshot of what this looks like:
The benefit of having such lists is that it helps you manage privacy controls (e.g., if you only want your vacation photos viewable by close friends/family), and you can also target messages/invitations to specific lists.
However: As wonderful as privacy controls are, they can really backfire if people find out you've blocked them from certain areas of your profile. Make sure you know what you're doing. Plus I never assume such controls are infallible.
2. Decide what kind of focus you want your Facebook presence to have. For instance, my Facebook wall is focused on information relevant to writing and publishing. It includes an automated feed from my Writer's Digest blog (meaning my blog posts are automatically posted to my wall), and I share articles of interest to writers.
I had a friend joke recently that I was the only person he knew whose Facebook page was used for professional purposes, and that last time he checked out my profile, a window popped up to accept his credit card.
But that's a warning to everyone: you can't treat Facebook as a sales tool. Rather, it's a way to give people another way to interact, learn, trust. I see it as sharing & service, and if I'm lucky, so do others (rather than as a sales tactic).
I bet some people would pay though to see some of the high school photos available in my Facebook albums.
3. To avoid a complete time sink, decide what kinds of activity/requests you will engage in and which you will ignore. For instance, I don't participate in any types of games, causes, or other past times on Facebook (for awhile I indulged in Scrabble, but stopped). I also make the "chat" tool inactive for everyone except a few personal connections. I take the occasional frivolous quiz and post the results, which always leads to fun and valuable interaction.
I often get this question: Should I create a fan page for myself or my book/product, and keep this separate from my personal page? There's nothing wrong with this approach, and given the 5,000-friend limit in place for personal profiles, it can make sense for someone who expects to have a very large following (I'm looking at you, Robert—who did in fact just create a fan page!). But for most writers/authors starting out, without a separate and distinct business or book/product, it doesn't make sense to segment your Facebook presence and manage two profiles and two sets of interactions.
And that's key: Facebook allows interaction on a level that I can't get anywhere else, helps keep connections going, and offers many opportunities I wouldn't have otherwise had to offer help or be helped. The interactions you have will be as meaningful and authentic as what you put into it. I hope to see you there. Plus: Become a fan of the Writer's Digest page.
(And, to beat the drum: Are you looking for more expertise on social media for writers? Check out our September conference, featuring Chris Brogan as keynote!)