Socials, Shindigs, Get Togethers, Mixers; though the names may not always be the same, one thing remains constant in the life of a professional, the Party. Through my personal experience I’ve found that a great way to visualize Social Media is by paralleling the different mediums to different types of parties. It helps users understand the level of privacy on each medium and what type of behavior is acceptable on different levels, because we all know that you can’t go to a Company Picnic and treat it like a Tailgate Party.

Like many other adults, my folks have recently started using Facebook. And like roughly 1 billion other web socialites, they love it. Of course, their newfound obsession hasn’t come without questions. Lots of questions.

I’ve been on Facebook since 2006, since before the newsfeed even existed, back when users had a wall, photos, and nothing more. So while these things may have seemed fundamental to me, I’ve found that isn’t always the case with new users, like my parents. I tried numerous times in numerous ways to explain to my folks what the equivalent of writing on someone’s wall was in real life. I tried to detail that things you post on one’s wall can be seen by everyone in their personal network, and that it needed to be done with discretion. Eventually I came up with this; friending someone (on their personal page) on Facebook is the equivalent of knocking on their door and asking to come in while they’re holding a private party at their home for friends, family and close acquaintances.

With Facebook you have to request to be added to someone’s friends list. My personal rules are to restrict my wall and photos to friends only, and to never accept someone I don’t recognize, plain and simple. By the same token, if I were holding a get together at my house, I wouldn’t let a stranger just walk right in. If the stranger knocked first and knew a few people there who could vouch for him, perhaps I would oblige.

It is for this reason that you probably should avoid friending a potential prospect or customer on Facebook. While many professionals use Facebook (some very effectively, too), the basis of website is around your personal life. Photos, videos, communication from family and friends are all things that come after a professional relationship has been established.

Imagine that one’s Facebook Wall is an open microphone. Would you pick up that mic and speak to your prospect, in front of everyone? By writing on their wall, you’ve essentially spoken in front of everyone in their social network, whether they asked you to or not.

Even if you don’t grab the microphone at the party, you still walk around their house, see the photos on their walls and mantles and essentially get an up close and personal view of that person. You also have to remember that because you entered their party, now they can come to yours too.

My rule of thumb is; if you’re not close enough with a contact to attend one of their private parties, think twice about asking to enter their virtual world and allowing them to enter yours.

LinkedIn, which I feel is gaining tremendous popularity, is a little more formal. If we look at LinkedIn like a holiday party at your company or a professional networking session, we can really get a feel for how to act. Though LinkedIn has a lot of similar features to Facebook, the stigma is different. The reason? We don’t share personal information on LinkedIn the same way we do on Facebook. One photo, a few interests, and maybe a personal bio is about as intimate as LinkedIn gets. The number one focus there is your professional experience.

That’s not to say that it’s impossible to have a good time at a Company party. You have the ability to meet new people in a semi-professional, yet relaxed situation. Your credentials are on display and who you know often matters in your ability to connect with, or even locate others. I won’t make this LinkedIn 101, but their 3 degrees of networking are vital when connecting with new contacts. Moreover, the “Get Introduced” can be a tremendous networking tool, just as having a friend introduce you to someone is in person.

If you connect with a prospect on LinkedIn, you’re allowing them to see you in a professional light. They also may discover connections between the two of you that you never knew existed and add depth to your future interactions.

When you go to a networking session, most will tell you that it is impossible to shake hands with every single person in attendance. However, if you can do it in a manageable fashion, more power to you. With LinkedIn, you have that freedom as well, I would only suggest that it must be used at one’s discretion.

Finally I’ve come to the Social Media site that I think is the least invasive, my favorite, Twitter. Twitter is very much like a bar or night club, and you’re the owner. You don’t care if a line forms around the block, you just want as many people buzzing about what’s inside as possible.

Twitter is by default, an opt-out service. When you sign up, you are agreeing to broadcast your Tweets to everyone, unless you go out of your way to privatize them. So if you find a prospect or client on Twitter, don’t ever hesitate to “follow” them. Approach without fear, say hello, because they’ve come to the party for the same reason you have.

Sure every bar or nightclub has a target audience, but you want that audience to come in droves. It’s completely relaxed, however there are still a few rules that when broken, will have the bouncer tossing you into the alley. So mind your behavior and use discretion, but have fun and be as outgoing as possible. Don’t be afraid to approach just about anyone. But don’t forget, you can still blow it. Contribute meaningful insight or conversation. Don’t just laugh at every joke they tell or “retweet” everything they’ve said to everyone else standing there who’s probably already heard it.