CHICAGO (TheStreet) -- With The Social Network sweeping up awards at the Golden Globes this week -- and probably dominating the Oscar race as well -- Facebook is getting more publicity than ever.
The movie has fostered plenty of debate, including one central issue: In the world of Facebook, what exactly is a friend?
The movie about the starting of Facebook, The Social Network, makes the point that in business, not everyone is a friend. That's also true when using Facebook and other social media.
It's a question that's especially relevant at a time when professional and personal lives are becoming ever more intertwined. Start a Facebook page to keep in touch with out-of-town relatives and college pals and you may find yourself besieged with requests from people you'd consider acquaintances at best. Do customers or suppliers count as "friends"? Do you want employees browsing pictures of your family activities? Reading your thoughts on politics?
"When you open a new store, you expect to be friendly with your employees and customers," says Puneet Manchanda, the Isadore and Leon Winkelman Professor of Marketing at the Ross School of Business of the University of Michigan. "If they want to be your friends online, you really have no choice. You cannot maintain that boundary. They'll wonder why you're willing to talk about your family in the store, but not with them on Facebook."
Although Facebook is experimenting with ways to divide "friends" into separate networks (so you can tag who gets access to which posts), Manchanda says we shouldn't expect large-scale changes, because the company's focus will always be on getting the maximum number of people to look at each page.
"They're selling eyeballs," he says. "Facebook is monetizing the fact that huge numbers of people show up. If they make the site experience more complex, fewer people will show up."
One relatively easy solution is to create a personal Facebook page for yourself and a separate "fan" page for your business (following in the tradition of actors and musicians who want to encourage online fan activity without sharing personal information). Should a customer send a request to your personal page, you can refer them to the fan page instead. "It sends the message that you have a separate private life," Manchanda says.
But should you even have a fan page? Does your company need to be on Facebook at all?
Many small-business owners simply haven't determined what role social media will play in their company, Manchanda says. "It should be part of an overall branding and marketing strategy," he says.
Facebook and Twitter lend themselves to communication that is simple, witty and constantly changing. Using them makes sense only if that's the kind of message you need to get out to your customers (and if your customers are tech-savvy users of social media themselves).
"There's nothing worse than a Facebook page that never gets updated," Manchanda says. "If you offer an experiential product or push out coupons and offers a lot, then it makes sense. But a heating and cooling company may find that nothing much changes about their systems or services. In that case, it doesn't really make sense to have a Facebook page. Put up a great website instead."
If networking is an important part of growing your business, you should definitely post your profile on LinkedIn, which has a more professional focus than Facebook. While Facebook prompts users to post information about their favorite movies, TV shows and relationship status, LinkedIn users create online versions of their resumes and post work portfolios.
If you do have a Facebook page and find yourself straddling the professional-personal divide, follow some common-sense guidelines. First, don't use Facebook as a confessional. Remember that material posted online lasts forever on a server somewhere; an angry rant or embarrassing party photos can come back to haunt you years later.
Also, don't use your closest friends as your imagined audience when you post to your Facebook page. If your contact list has grown to include a number of pseudo-friends, think of them listening to the words you're writing. Could it offend or confuse them?
"The material you put up on the site should be equivalent to what you'd say to a person you know who walks into your store or office," Manchanda says. "That's a fair rule of thumb."
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This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.