Social networking: is it the key to success in the information age or a colossal waste of time? The prevailing opinion is that if you want to sell yourself or your product you have to blog, tweet, share, blab, carp, bill and coo so you can be liked, dugg, hugged, diddled or snagged. Whoever gets the most comments wins.

Or do they?

To find out whether social networking actually pays off, I turned to Ted Murphy, the CEO of Izea, which helps bloggers, tweeters and other "social media publishers" monetize their content by connecting them with advertisers desperate for eyeballs.

"Click-thru rates on online advertising are getting worse and worse," he reports. "The only way for advertisers to be part of the experience and the conversation is to be a part of the content."

So Murphy has followed the example of TV and film by providing opportunities for product placement, otherwise known as "social media sponsorship." His just-released report on the state of social media describes it this way:

Social media sponsorship or 'SMS' is the practice of providing compensation to a social media publisher in exchange for a mention, promotion or review through that publisher's social media channels. Compensation can be in the form of cash, free product or service, experiences, discounts, coupons or other special incentives.

But the figures from his survey's nearly 3,000 respondents don't show anyone aren't encouraging. For instance, bloggers who invested four to 10 hours a week received a whopping yearly income from their blogs of $883. Those who did more than 10 hours a week earned a yearly income of just $3,344.

And the Twitter stats were even worse: those spending more than 10 hours a week tweeting had on average $623 a year in income to show for it. What's more, social media publishers invested $711 on expenses related to blogging (hosting, education, conferences and other "social media expenses," presumably overpriced coffee to justify sitting in Starbucks all day).

Like film or television, you can make a killing on the internet, but it's tough to make a living. That is, unless you're savvy about it.

Like Patrice Monaghan Schneider of Burlington, Vt. While struggling to sell TV ads to resorts on RSN TV, she saw on Facebook that the membership and sales director of the Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce "was moaning and hinting at leaving her job."

"So I sent her a message and she tells me she just gave her notice," Schneider says. "Now I have mommy hours 8:30 a.m. -- 3 p.m. And no more day care costs."

This story perfectly illustrates how social networking can work professionally. Like all of us, Schneider posts goofy videos, such as this one of a guy too wasted to put on his flip-flops, and quirky observations like "it's kinda weird when you look at a relative's page and think when did they get a life that doesn't include me?" But she also kept her eye out for career opportunities, which totally paid off.

From a professional perspective, the internet is like a party. The only people who get paid to go are celebrities. For the rest of us, we can either goof off with our friends or use it as an opportunity to get ahead.

Murphy agrees. "At the end of the day, it comes down to engagement and interacting with people."

And that, my friends, is The Upside.

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