They're a productivity sink and a bandwidth suck. They're a vector for malware and a gift for corporate spies. They're a data spill just waiting to happen. And like it or not, they're already inside your enterprise.
Meet the Social Network. No, not that movie about Mark Zuckerberg -- the real social network, from Facebook and MySpace to Twitter and Flickr, used by your coworkers and colleagues every single day, whether they're officially allowed to or not.
[ Find out how to assemble an IT special ops team in "A-Teams of IT: How to build a crack strike force." | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]
But social networking inside the enterprise is not only inevitable, it's essential. Used correctly, social media can help your company solve problems, burnish its public image, recruit top talent, and generate ideas. Implemented poorly -- or worse, ignored -- and it can create a world of pain.
You can get on the social bus, or you get dragged behind it -- your choice.
Taming the social network: With friends like these, who needs enemies?
What could go wrong with giving unfettered access to social networks at work? Plenty. Even if you manage to keep employees from spending all day milking cows and harvesting crops in Farmville, a host of other potential threats lurk just below the surface.
Take bandwidth, for example. Social media is consuming ever increasing amounts of network resources, according to Palo Alto Networks' Application Usage and Risk Report. While the number of social media apps found on corporate networks has remained relatively stable over the past year, the bandwidth these apps consume has more than doubled and is expected to grow even more.
"Social media traffic is massive," says Rene Bonvanie, vice president of worldwide marketing for the network security vendor. "We see the bandwidth demands going up substantially through social media apps. In many cases, it does conflict with business systems in these organizations, which could lead to continuity issues."
Worse, because they're based on trust, social networks have become very effective vectors for spreading malware, says Sarah Carter, chief strategy officer for FaceTime, a maker of Web 2.0 security tools -- much more so than, say, email.
"We're well trained in the email and traditional Web world," Carter says. "We don't click on .exe attachments or URLs that look suspicious -- heck we probably don't even see them anymore because of our spam filters. But in the world of social networking, where the person we're receiving the message/notification from is inside our trusted network of people, we're more susceptible to just plain clicking on that link and infecting ourselves."