When the net works for networking

Few things capture that magical combination of dread and certainty like death and taxes, but networking is surely one of them. What seemed so easy as a kid – having a good time with people you’ve barely even met – becomes this uncomfortable, alien dance in adulthood. I can see it now – how much less awkward it would be if we were all sitting in a sandbox.

Photo by mzn37 on Flickr

Photo by mzn37 on Flickr

What are you building?
– A castle.
Can I help?
– Sure, if you want.
*Dig dig dig*

Some people are natural conversationalists and for them it is relatively painless. For others, striking up a conversation with a stranger is like pulling teeth – for both parties involved. The key is to make it not feel like networking, and it helps if they aren’t complete strangers.

A good solution, I’ve found, is on the internet. Social networking is not new, of course, but until last year I hadn’t fully appreciated the ability of the web to bring people together into real functioning communities de novo. I thought of social networking sites like Facebook as places to hang out with people you already knew and engage in utterly uninteresting banter. But then I found FriendFeed and with that I discovered that there are tons of clever, interesting people out there who get excited about the same things as I do, both professionally and otherwise. You follow their blogs, eavesdrop on intelligent discussions, and then slowly start contributing yourself. It’s all very civil like, and yet fun and exciting, like a sandbox for grown-ups.

In no time, I felt like I was part of a real community, and the best part is that it really is, well, real. As in flesh and blood real. As in, we’ve been flitting around on the intertubes for a while, but hey I’m going to be in such and such place next week, who’s around that wants to grab a coffee? And a couple people inevitably are from that area and they meet up in person, face to face. Or, who’s going to be at XYZ Conference? And a dozen or so people chime in, meet at the conference for the first time, and end up publishing a paper about it. Now that’s what I call highly effective networking!

And I feel like that’s how it should be. It shouldn’t feel forced or contrived. If it does, you probably won’t get anything out of it other than a business card, which, by the way, make excellent bookmarks. If you’re like me, and still have trouble with formal “networking” events even after 5 years of attending them and multiple seminars on “Networking for Introverts”, then communities like those on FriendFeed are a beacon of light. I get to know people at a more natural pace, and get legitimately excited about meeting them, and then I DO meet them in person eventually.

It’s the ‘net – and it’s working.

7 Responses to When the net works for networking

  1. “how much less awkward it would be if we were all sitting in a sandbox”.

    There is a good reason why in collaborative publishing efforts there is always an accessible scratch page called “the sandbox”

  2. Deepak says:

    Formal networking events are so contrived. You’re just a name badge. Yes, they have their value, but most of us are just not cut out for them. All of “you” I have met over the web. Many of you I’ve ended up meeting following a tweet, at geek events, at conferences, and that just works.

  3. ouroboros says:

    Hey Shirley — I’m writing a piece on “interactive web” methods in scientific communication. Mind if we include an excerpt from this post? In particular the bit about turning virtual communities into real ones.

    Sorry I missed coffee in Palo Alto the other day, by the way; that sounds fun.

    CP

  4. shwu says:

    @ouroboros: of course, feel free to quote me on anything. ;)

    @Iddo: but what about before a collaboration even starts? what if there was a sandbox where people could meet potential collaborators?

    Society is the ultimate chemistry experiment. People react to their surroundings and the possible outcomes are pretty much infinite, but if their surroundings are inert, the outcomes will be pretty boring. The web is like pouring people together in a test tube with a lot of heat – more compounds, more energy, accelerated interaction. Not everything will come out the way you want but you can try a whole lot more things in much less time!

  5. Pingback: Science Spotlight - March 23rd, 2009 | Next Generation Science

  6. Pingback: Your (r)evolution will be digitized: online tools for radical collaboration — DMM « Fredzimny’s CCCCC Blog

  7. Mike says:

    I love your article and I’m glad you’ve made use out of FF.

    My experience though has been awful with social networking. I found it so forced and contrived, almost as how you describe real life interactions with strangers. I felt like sawing off my own arm in boredom when people kept making tweets like ‘I’m cooking tomato soup for dinner’ or ‘I am in the train’… yawn!

    My friends appear boring on social networking sites, I only feel the buzz, no pun intended, in face to face interactions with them. Social networking also seems to be a lot about ego trips with certain people… it’s a case of “look at my interesting life, aren’t I amazing”. The weird thing I found was that interesting people appear boring and boring people appear interesting on social networking sites… very bizarre.

    I guess people are just wired differently. I think it’s fantastic though that there is something for different types of people now… great opportunities for everyone.

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