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There was once a time when the New Yorker cartoon about two dogs sitting in front of a PC was the way most of us wanted to surf the Web – “No one knows you’re a dog on the Internet.” 


Today, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Through social networks, it seems everyone wants you to know who they are, as well as their activities in real time, political and religious views, relationship status, employment status, and favorite sports teams (for me, it’s the Patriots and Red Sox all the way). 


I’ve been experimenting with social networking for more than a year (unofficially, my first online social network was AOL 15 years ago, but we didn’t call it social networking back then). To date, I’m a member of nearly two dozen different social networks. I have my Facebook page, my Twitter blog, my LinkedIn Profile, posted videos to YouTube and, most recently, a listing on PartnerPedia. I won’t do MySpace; nothing personal, but it just seems too childish for my taste (sorry, Mr. Murdock). 


The question that always comes, though, is what good are all these social networks, anyway? Aren’t they just for kids looking for dates and free MP3s? The truth is that these social networks are a tremendous business opportunity for solution providers. The creators of these social networks are tapping into the inner introvert in all of us, enabling us to make and maintain connections with far-flung people with whom we’d never get the opportunity to meet in real life. 


Case in point: My chance virtual encounter with Michael Dell. Yes, the Michael Dell. 


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One night last spring while writing a column about social networking, I started surfing Facebook for new connections. At the time, a friend and I had a friendly bet over who could collect the most celebrity connections through Facebook. Then I stumbled upon a listing for Michael Dell. 


Sure, there are many fakes on Facebook (including the infamous Fake Steve Jobs), but there are just as many legitimate listings by high-profile business leaders, celebrities and politicians. We exchanged a few Facebook messages about how important the channel is to Dell’s new business strategy. When I asked for a face-to-face meeting, he replied that someone from his office would contact me to make arrangements. Sure enough, the next day I got a message from his office and three weeks later, I’m in Round Rock, Texas, meeting with Michael Dell in his executive conference room. 


In the past year, Facebook, LinkedIn and PartnerPedia have become alternative communications channels for me. I’m increasingly arranging meetings, establishing new business contacts and vetting ideas through my social networking communities. Some people are now exclusively communicating with me through Facebook, forgoing the drudgeries of Microsoft Exchange. And, as I’m writing this column, a new social network by Xeequa Partner Space specifically for the channel contacted me through an existing social network, PartnerPedia, about its pending launch.


Businesses of all shapes and sizes still haven’t unlocked the code for how to truly turn the hours puttered away on these Web sites into real business dollars. As with most things in business and life, half the battle is just showing up. We can debate the merits of social networking, but it’s a medium that’s here to stay. Solution providers not only need to establish themselves in the social universe, but they also need to figure out different ways of engaging with their peers, vendors and customers. 


How important is this? User-generated rating systems and reviews pioneered by Amazon, eBay and Netflix are rapidly making their way into the business and consumer worlds. OnForce, a community of solution providers that exchange services, uses rating systems of buyers and sellers to give users a snapshot of their validity. Web sites are emerging that will rate the quality of work and value of solution providers in the same way as they do vendor products. The way of staying on top of these social forces is actively engaging with customers and partners through this medium to ensure they understand who you are and for what you stand. 


Channel Insider is doing this with you and our future readers. Recently, we launched our LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and PartnerPedia groups, providing you with different opportunities to chat and collaborate about the topics in our forums and the content we produce. We’re already seeing a viral effect in new members joining our community and new ideas flowing into our in-boxes. 


Numerous other channel groups have established presences in these social networks. MSPAlliance, SBM Forum, IT Channel Alliance and many, many more can be found in places like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Isn’t it time you became a member of these groups or start your own? The social networking wave hasn’t crested and continues to gain momentum. Now is the time to get onboard. 


Lawrence M. Walsh is vice president and group publisher of Channel Insider