Belfast Telegraph

A lesson in keeping up with social networking

By Kevin Rawlinson

Evening classes in French are nothing out of the ordinary, few eyebrows would be raised at Saturday evening salsa lessons and Yoga is simply passé. The newest of trends among the suits, however, is perhaps a little more surprising.

Academics and private tuition firms are reporting a "growing trend" in people taking Twitter lessons, as well as classes in other social media.

They say that more and more firms are expecting their staff to be able to use social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn.

According to tutors, students signing up for the lessons range from those who want to know how to use an 'at-reply' or get people to 'Like' their page, to those who - in the words of one teacher - "want to create the next Facebook."

Dr Grant Blank, a research fellow at Oxford University's Oxford Internet Institute (OII), agreed that the past two years had seen a significant increase in the number of people wanting to take advantage of the connection to their customers that social networking sites can give.

But he added that the sites were also being used to vet prospective or even current employees.

"Something like Facebook is your own idea of who you are, your image on there is not imposed by others as much as perhaps it is elsewhere so it can often give an inherently honest picture," he said.

"Vetting plays a role when it comes to social media. Although it is not a policy anywhere I know of, it is nevertheless an informal practice. I have certainly seen it happen in the past."

Students on the courses come from PR firms, marketing companies and banks. One school said it had even had a member of staff from the US State Department in its classrooms. Most, said one teacher, are companies "who have missed the social networking boat".

But, as Colin Welch admitted, that does not mean their teachers are not occasionally confronted by the more fundamental queries.

"One of our students once asked, 'How can I make sure no-one can see my tweets?' Which, after all, rather defeats the point," he said.

Zara Gugen (23) attended a social media course last August, shortly after graduating and starting work for a London-based marketing firm.

She said she was not surprised to be sent on the course because it had become clear that understanding how to use social media had become "just another part" of her job.

It may be "easy to pass off as a fad", said Mr Welch. But, he said, "people in business are realising they should have been involved in social networking much earlier".