By contrast, Cameron Sinclair has been canvassing the multitudes electronically for years. For the co-founder of San Francisco-based Architecture for Humanity (AFH), being linked in is less of an ego thing and more about the necessity of running an international nonprofit from the road. In fact, online networking is critical to a decentralized operation like AFH. With 120 chapters around the world, within seconds he can know what's happening on the ground and react quickly. For example, after a cyclone hit Myanmar in May 2008, followed within days by an earthquake in China, AFH turned to its global network to gauge where to focus its efforts. “People came back overwhelmingly saying that Myanmar needs our help more because of lack of access,” Sinclair says. “It helps us to be very agile in our decision making.”

Sinclair blogs on The Huffington Post because it gets translated in about 30 dialects, he says. A month into his Twitter account last February, he'd attracted 500 followers and was following 700, ranging from people at nongovernmental and funding organizations to reporters and influential designers. “I'm interested to see what Michelle Kaufmann is doing with innovative design and technology, because she's been doing sustainable design for the top 25 percent of the world and I'm doing it for the bottom 25 percent,” he says. “She's one of the most tech-savvy people I know.” He, too, is embedding video clips on YouTube; among them is his interview with a citizen journalist at Davos 2009, in which he plugged the Open Architecture Network, his latest brainchild.

“I used to get 250 e-mails a day; now I get about 60 since I moved to social networks,” Sinclair says, simultaneously responding to a ping from Italy. Yes, but doesn't a Twitter account mean a lot more messages to answer? It does, except that given the 140-character limit, “rather than someone writing a four-page treatise on what they want to do, they're usually succinct,” he says. Social media may still be a time drain, but at least some of it inspires brevity. And in an era of information overload, the ability to distill thoughts to a few short, declarative sentences is something to which we can all aspire.

through the media portal

Does one have to be a tireless self-promoter to be an online social networker? Not really. Just be yourself—and beware of any skeletons in the company closet, says Frederic Brunel, associate professor of marketing at the Boston University School of Management. Online social networking is really consumer-mediated marketing, which means the consumer controls the message, he says. “The paradigm change is something that companies have to come to terms with; you can't play in that space with the old rules.”

In this public forum, comments from a disgruntled client or neighborhood association can backfire. “If you have a dirty house, don't open the door,” Brunel says. “Make sure you've cultivated a customer base that's connected to you at an emotional and a rational level.” It's also a system that behooves you to be honest. If you're participating in an online discussion with homeowners doing remodeling projects, make sure you're speaking from an architect's perspective, but not directly trying to sell your services. “Engage them as an adviser and participant in the discussion,” Brunel says. “It's not like direct marketing where you expect a 3 percent return; it takes place on a deeper, and often more powerful, level.”

A company Facebook page can boost business, but there must be a compelling reason to friend it, he continues. One idea: Develop video or photo essays of a project you're working on and let your client show the link to friends. Likewise, a blog must have meaningful content. And you have to accept feedback. “Some companies that didn't want to give up control have censored negative posts,” Brunel says. “It takes 24 hours to 48 hours for [an online] community to figure it out.”

Online social media's other potential advantage is its possibilities for inviting community input in planning multifamily projects. “Taking advantage of Web 2.0 means that consumers are creating content, instead of just being consumers of content,” Brunel explains. “It's collaborative in nature, and in many ways the rules are still being redefined.”