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When you think about getting involved with social media, do you feel stressed out? Negative? Avoidant? Don’t worry, that’s normal.

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It can be daunting to think about putting yourself “out there” in terms of engaging in social media. Aside from the real privacy and safety concerns about being so transparent online, it is also easy to see that, in some facets, social media is like a popularity contest- and one in which everyone knows where you’re ranking.

For many of us, it reminds us of high school- where we really wanted to be popular, cool, and hip- but just didn’t know how. And it’s not helped, at all, by the fact that some of our peers and colleagues feel so at ease swimming in the social media pool.

Underneath the shyness may be a feeling of discomfort- both of learning the new paradigm and then investing in it. We may use excuses of “social media is just a fad” or “serious businesses don’t use social media”, but, unfortunately, we’d be wrong on both counts.

Research suggests that the largest companies will be investing heavily in social media over the next few years. If you don’t dive in pretty soon, you might miss the party all together.

So what is a social media wallflower to do? Here are some tips to get started gently and easily with social media:

Determine how much you are comfortable sharing within the online space. Some people will be fine talking about their spouse, their work, and their pets- but not their children. Some people will feel more comfortable sharing about just their work and personal interests, sans family information or photos. There is not “right” or “wrong” way to participate, so you should always do what makes you the most comfortable. Realize, too, that certain social sites may require more “up to the minute” updates (think of Twitter, for example), which may not be quite your style. Create some guidelines for what you’d be comfortable sharing with complete strangers who may, eventually, become part of your professional network.

Focus first on a professional social network. One of the easiest, and most familiar, ways to step into social media is by using professional social networking sites, such as LinkedIn.  This site allows you to contribute professional data, and to connect with others around your professional network. Given that this site is quite similar to creating an electronic resume or CV, even the shyest person should be able to complete the profile process quite successfully. There is more to using LinkedIn, of course, but getting your profile up is the first step.

Read the instructions. Be sure you understand what kind of data each site collects, and how it uses or shares your information. On some sites, data you provide will be automatically shared (public/viewable) with other users. So clarify how the site uses data and set your privacy settings appropriately.

Start small. Like any new skill you want to acquire, it is best to start small. Select one or two sites to start with, and gradually add on others as you move forward.

And who knows? One day you may find yourself participating, sharing, networking- and loving every minute of it.