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When you look at your Facebook friends, or your LinkedIn network, or your Twitter follower list, do you see only people you know? Or, like me, do you have a mix of people you know well, some you don’t know that well (yet), and maybe even a few people who reached out to you, and you’ve never met or talked with them?

As easy as it ease to connect on the social networks (usually just a click and a quick message of Hello!), more and more people are wondering how open they should be with their social network acceptances. Some people are locking down, and only accepting people online that they know in real life. Others are accepting everyone who meets a certain standard of engagement or professionalism. And still others are accepting everyone who asks.

With the site-wide roll out of new privacy settings on Facebook, the questions of how open to be on your social networks is becoming more and more relevant.

While I certainly don’t have all the answers, let me give you a few areas to consider.

How open you should be on your social networks is based on what you’re using your social networks for.

For example, if you are using your Facebook account primarily to stay in touch with friends, family, and neighbors, you can set the most stringent privacy settings- the ones where only friends can see your details. This is also a smart move, perhaps, if you share a lot of details about your life, and want to retain some amount of control over how this information is distributed. Of course, remember that anything that goes online is never really private, or undiscoverable, so keep that in mind when you share.

If you are using Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn to build your professional network, I would suggest being a little more open about who you accept. My rule of thumb, generally, is to accept most people who approach me, after I’ve checked out their profiles, and recent updates, and satisfied myself that I’m comfortable with being associated with them. I call this approach the “giving people the benefit of the doubt” stance- I will connect on the social networks unless or until you give me a reason not to do so.

The third way to approach your social networks is to accept everyone indiscriminately- just to boost your follower ratio, or just because you’re lazy. I definitely do not recommend this, for several reasons. First, it can damage your reputation or standing. Let’s say, for example, that you accept a bunch of people who are porn spammers on Twitter- wouldn’t that negatively impact your brand? (Of course, right, unless you’re a porn spammer yourself, in which case you’re probably not reading this anyway…). The second reason not to accept just everyone is because now that the content of Twitter and Facebook updates are now searchable, you don’t want any ill considered tweets or updates to show up in your stream or on your Wall and be associated with you. Not saying this is exactly how it will work, but better safe than sorry, especially with new technology, right?

If you do any directed promotion online, such as a teleseminar or webinar, be sure you are careful about how you manage your social network additions in the days and weeks after. I have had people who were in my classes or trainings approach me to connect, and you want to encourage this as much as possible in order to build your positioning online. If I were too stringent and denied everyone who wanted to connect with me that I didn’t yet know, I would have pissed some people off, and kind of cut off new potential business relationships before they really began. This is why, for business, I recommend the “give people the benefit of the doubt” approach as a general rule.

Part of the value of social networks is that you can engage with and connect with more people than you might otherwise be able to reach. The value of this is diminished if you are too stringent in your networking, or, conversely, too open with it.

Like the fairy tale of Goldilocks, the goal with social networking is to not be too stringent, nor too open, but instead, just right.