The year 2008 is in the rearview mirror.  It’s over and done with.  And right beside 2008 in that rearview should be any doubts you may have had about the impact social media and networks can have on our lives -- from a business perspective as well as a personal one. Those doubts can firmly be put to rest this week with the inauguration of Barack Obama as president because his campaign’s use of social media played a major role in his historic victory.

Now, in 2009, it’s not about if you should embrace social media, it’s about identifying the different ways you should do so. And here are a few things you may want to think about as you “Go Social” in the new year.

The good

We’re in the middle of the worst recession in decades, with every day beginning with another disastrous economic report.  So it’s critical for us to find ways to keep our cash outlays to a minimum while keeping our customers happy, and while finding more customers like them.  This is precisely why businesses are turning to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social tools and networks, as they are able to meaningfully connect with customers and prospects at a very low price point.

This seems to reinforce findings from a recent study conducted by Coleman-Parkes Research that found 84 percent of companies headquartered in North America feel they need to find new ways to communicate with customers.  These “new ways” not only include the social networks your customers frequent, but also the devices they use to access them, like their BlackBerry, iPod or G1 phone.  So using social media to solidify existing relationships, as well as create new ones, can be done.  And it can be done inexpensively, and with relative ease by creating captivating content.

The bad

Because it has become so easy to create and distribute content, it’s also more difficult to capture people’s attention long enough to really connect with them.  And as creation tools get even easier to use, coupled with more people adding content to the Web, your fight for the hearts and minds of people will become even more difficult.  But the difficulties involved in attracting attention for your blogs, podcasts, and videos should not discourage you from using these valuable communication tools.  It is too important.  In fact the 2008 Cone Business in Social Media Study finds that 93 percent of American social media users feel companies should have a social media presence -- with 56 percent saying they feel a stronger connection with companies that do. 

The good news is top notch content should eventually stand out from the marginal stuff.  And the vast majority of Web content would probably fall into the marginal category, if that.  So it’s important to put some extra time and effort into consistently creating good stuff -- the kind of content that will turn heads, lead to conversations, and eventually build long lasting relationships.  And that’s really not so bad after all, now that I think about it.

The ugly

On the Web, people really appreciate information that provides them with solutions to their challenges.  They also love blogs and videos that make them, think, laugh, cry, and experience all kinds of emotions humans can feel.  And when they do find content that stirs them in these ways, they share it with friends and colleagues.  They leave comments on blogs, “tweet” about it on Twitter and promote on sites like Digg and StumbleUpon.  This is the beautiful thing about the Web -- people promoting the good works of others just because they feel the work is worthy of acknowledgement, and the creator deserving of a “shout-out”.

While the overwhelming majority of people show their respect for great content by delivering kudos in the ways described about, there are some people who show their appreciation for good content by claiming it as their own.  Unfortunately, this very thing happened to me not too long ago, as a N.Y.-based public relations firm took one of my blog posts and used it virtually word for word in a sales pitch to prospects. They did this with no attribution whatsoever, literally passing off my work as if it came from their own creative staff.

The unexpected

Now I’d be naïve to think that a little “content re-use” wouldn’t be going on out there on the Wild, Wild Web.  But I was totally caught off guard by this.  How could a public relations firm really expect to get away with something like this?  Within hours of the email blast going out promoting my work as theirs, I had been notified by a friend of mine.  He had been notified by a friend of his who had received the e-mail directly from the firm. 

I decided to blog about this experience and share my feelings on it.  I knew my friends would be pretty angry about this, but the most anger and outrage came from complete strangers.  Strangers who left comments on my blog, sending tweets on my behalf, writing their own blog posts and even sending e-mails to the PR firm demanding they apologize to me AND compensate me for using my work.

As unexpected as this whole episode was to me, in hindsight it really shouldn’t have been.  Social media and networks are powerful mediums, but only as good as the humans who use them.  Just like telephones, cars and other appliances, they can be used for good purposes -- or bad ones.  But it’s important to understand that this “social stuff” is here to stay.  And the Web community rewards people who contribute good works using social media, but will punish those who negatively impact the community with actions similar to those of the firm mentioned above. So if you’re planning on going social this year, keep this in mind in 2009.

Brent Leary is a small-business technology analyst, adviser and award-winning blogger. Leary is also host of a weekly radio program heard on Business Technology Radio . His blog can be found at