Together from Afar

Evolving social media platforms and trends are changing the ways people network. Earlier this week I happened upon a friend I hadn’t seen for over a year. We agreed to do a better job of staying in touch. Out came our respective smart phones as we simultaneously traded emails with our respective contact information.

Three Things make this encounter remarkable:

  1. No paper was exchanged. It didn’t so much as occur to either of us to produce or ask the other for a business card. Moreover, there was no suggestion of a follow-up phone call or lunch. “Staying in touch” meant friending and tweeting.
  2. Both of us understood “friend” as a verb and “tweet” as not applying to avian communication. My friend is a Boomer and I am of Generation X, but we experienced no generation gap as to technology. While the easiest way to master a new video game may still be to enlist the aid of anyone under ten years old, otherwise technology is no longer the exclusive domain of the young.
  3. These days there is nothing particularly remarkable about the First and Second Things. There we were, casually exchanging information by use of devices which until recently existed only in sci-fi movies. Yet neither of us so much as cocked an eyebrow at what the mighty microprocessor hath wrought. Seemingly overnight, electronic networking has moved from novelty to norm. Devices which would have awed us a decade ago and, according to Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law, earned users a burning at the stake a few centuries before that, today draw no notice and stir no wonder. (Clarke’s Third Law states, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)

Which means that, in an ironic twist, today it is no longer remarkable when someone uses new technology. It is only remarkable when someone doesn’t. And I don’t mean remarkable in a good way. The recording studio that uses magnetic tape, the financial institution that doesn’t provide full online services, the business that has no website, the designer who draws layouts by hand — each of these instantly self-brands as behind-the-times and, more important, misses out on opportunities…

… as does the professional who attempts to network only in person.

In classic Darwinian fashion, how people meet and keep up with each other has evolved in response to a changed environment. Face-to-face and voice-to-voice interactions still happen, but online interactions are fast taking hold. Neighbors meet neighbors less often as more people connect from within the walls of home to “friends” via personal electronics. You hear less of “call me” and more of “I’ll find you on Facebook” or “follow me on Twitter.” Even social gatherings have begun giving way to online meet-ups, forums and discussion boards. Nor must the electronically connected live within any proximity to one another. Unlike “making friends,” friending takes place as easily across the globe as across the hall.

What we lose in personal touch we may make up for in sheer numbers. Research by psychologist Robin Dunbar suggests that most of us are capable of having a genuine, in-person relationship — the kind where we’d feel free to pull up a chair uninvited if we “happened to bump into them” in public — with a maximum of about 150 people. Yet online, it’s not unusual for people to boast thousands of “friends,” most of whom they have never met and likely never will.

As people adopt online interactions in place of in-person ones, the business world naturally follows suit. Businesses are actively accruing vast followings through the above-referenced social media, and also through more business-oriented sites. These days if you ask for a business card, you may get one, but you’re increasingly likely to be told “find me on LinkedIn” instead.

Even seminars and conventions are moving offsite and online. For employers, webinars obviate the expense of travel, lodging, more costly tuition and suspicions that a trip may be more about golf and plying resumes than about the kind of networking and skill-sharpening that benefits the company. Employees may rightly rue the loss of exciting destinations, golf and resume-trading, but should equally rue the loss of honest, mutually beneficial networking among professionals. Sites like LinkedIn and targeted discussion groups and forums can provide important tools for filling that gap.

At this point, please permit me to add an important warning: Always think before you post. Online, there is no such thing as a fast-forgotten idle word. Once you post a word or image, it can pop up anywhere and at any time. Depending on its content, what you post may help you or mercilessly haunt you in perpetuity. Sadly, many people have failed to get a job — or lost one they already had — because something they posted later surfaced before the wrong pair of eyes. You should also guard against sharing personal information that you don’t want in the hands of the unscrupulous.

It isn’t time to shred your business cards and letterhead just yet. But if you’re dwelling in the good old days of physical Rolodex and business card files, you risk missing out as opportunities pass you by.

Avoid branding yourself as hopelessly offline. Pick up and master a smart phone. Be sure your contact information is on every email you send, both from your computer and your phone. Develop your online presence with business-oriented sites like LinkedIn for professional contacts, and like Facebook for personal ones. Build a website that represents you well. Create and contribute to a blog that establishes you in the way you wish to be seen.

I’ll be watching for you. So will the rest of the networked world.

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