Have the Facebooks and Twitters of the world passed you by? Are e-mail and telephone the primary ways you can be reached or that you reach out? If so, you’re probably wondering at this point whether it even matters be keep up with the latest social networking sites and tools. The short answer: It does - at least if your business success is tied in some part to your ability to remain accessible.

That’s not to say, though, that all of the social networks are perfect for everyone. But if you’ve been too busy to look into them up to now, it’s probably time to see what they can do for you. The good news is that a basic understanding what these tools and sites are good for - and what they’re not - is easy to acquire. Read on to find out.

Facebook

Facebook has over 500 million users for a reason: it’s the single best way to get in touch - and stay in touch - with people you may have lost track of over the years - and that includes former colleagues or business associates who might be in a great position to help you when you need it.

The key to Facebook’s success - and yours - is the site’s sheer number of users combined with its ability to hook you up with others you probably know based upon what you’ve done, where you’ve studied, where you’ve worked, and who you’ve known. Plenty of people turn to Facebook to hunt up old romantic flames or to chat with current friends and family. But there are plenty of essential business uses for Facebook as well. Keeping abreast of past co-workers and bosses, for example, could tie you in to future employment. Starting a Facebook page not only for self, but for your business or interests can likewise reap benefits through increased exposure.

Don’t be afraid that if you sign up for Facebook, you’ll run into people you no longer want to see - or that your personal Facebook page will turn up embarrassing information about you in the search engines. There are easy ways around both of those concerns. The first is by simply ignoring or rejecting “friend” requests that come your way from those you don’t want to contact. The second is by establishing privacy settings that will keep your Facebook page your own.

Twitter

Despite the media’s fascination with Twitter, many business people may not need what it has to offer. There are, though, exceptions - and important ones at that. Twitter can be genuinely useful for those who want to trade ideas, comments, and updates around specific gatherings, interests, or intellectual pursuits. In such cases, Twitter can be a great way of keeping abreast of what’s happening in your area of interest or your field. Because the essence of Twitter is the 140-character “tweets” that members send to one another, the tool can be an efficient way of communicating small bits of information quickly. And the many apps that let you tie in Twitter to your smartphone mean that you can get Twitter updates wherever you are.

Key to the productive use of Twitter, however, is keeping your circle of Twitter friends well defined. Start following the wrong people on Twitter, and your account will quickly begin to seem like a 24-hour spam inbox, constantly beckoning your attention with peremptory, annoying “tweets” in which you have no interest.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn was created solely for the purpose of allowing people to establish a social network among business associates, and its success is now without question. Like Facebook, once you provide the site with some details about what you’ve done and where you’ve worked, LinkedIn suggests colleagues or associates you may have forgotten about - and who could recommend you and your work to others.

Unlike Facebook, LinkedIn is all business, which is both good and bad. It’s good because you won’t have to wade through myriad updates about your connections’ latest family pictures or the YouTube video they found fantastic. It’s bad because sometimes those personal connections to people - the ones that do not come through purely business relations - are what really matter when you are looking for work. So look at LinkedIn and Facebook as complementary, and get an account with both.

Instant messaging

Instant messaging (IM) grew up in the 90s, and it’s far from dead.

In fact, it’s a vital communications medium that serves a purpose that no other internet-based mode of communication can: real time conversations that are more efficiently conducted online than by either e-mail or telephone.

So to stay fully connected today, you need at least one instant messaging account, and if your activities require that you be easy to reach, you should have an IM account with all of the major providers: MS Live, Yahoo!, Google, and perhaps even AOL. Don’t worry, either, about having to keep track of all of your accounts by having multiple chat clients open. An IM aggregator such as Digsby (http://www.digsby.com) can pull them all together neatly and allow you to chat with anyone using one familiar interface.

Skype

Skype isn’t just for internet telephone conversations, although it handles that job exceedingly well. Businesses are increasingly using the tool as a way to conduct interviews - both voice-only and video based - with potential job candidates. Whether the candidates are far away or close by, a preliminary Skype-based interview makes a lot of sense from both a time and cost perspective.

Signing up for any or all of the services mentioned here takes only minutes, and those will be minutes well spent. If you’re worried about getting a lot of spam as a result, use a free e-mail address that you create for the purpose of handling your social networking accounts. Set up these services right, though, and you won’t be dealing with spam. Instead, you’ll be expanding your opportunities.