Is it just me or is everyone more interested in “networking” these days? I’ve noticed a significant increase in “join my network” requests from people I know, have known, or barely know through sites like LinkedIn. Everyone seems to be interested in connecting and exchanging contact information.

Is social networking taking over the planet, or are we all just feeling a little leery about storing a lifetime of contacts in our company Outlook address book? I am inclined to believe it has more to do with the latter.

Why join the social networking bandwagon?
As someone at the tail end of the Boomer generation, I find myself caught between two worlds. I accept requests to connect via LinkedIn and Plaxo, but rarely initiate them. I have a Twitter account, but ‘tweet’ infrequently. I subscribe to a few blogs and follow the discussions, but participate only occasionally. I have never been to Facebook. A lot of it is curiosity and experimentation on my part. What I have learned is that it takes a lot of time and effort to stay connected in the digital universe, which is probably why most of us don’t do it, until we think we might need it.

One advantage with social networking sites is that they remove barriers of time and space. You can connect to anyone, anywhere. You don’t need to go to those uncomfortable cocktail parties, clutching your glass and grasping for conversational straws. You have time to think of something clever to say. It is also a quick way to find people with common interests. Scan networking sites or blog listings for interest groups that align with yours. Joining one of these is a fast-track to people you would never be able to meet in real life. I have found these to be useful, personally and professionally.

The limits of social networking
Be realistic in your expectations. They are great tools for exchanging ideas and information, finding potential partners or suppliers. If you are thinking of using it to try and make instant connections and source new customers, you may be very disappointed. In that way, social networking is a lot like the real thing – it is a buyer’s market. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t actively think about how to use it as a business development tool. But you will need to apply the same rules you would in any networking endeavor.

How should I use social networking sites?
Here are a few of the best practices I’ve collected (but not necessarily used):

         To be effective at any networking effort, you need to commit to it. Don’t follow my example and treat it like a buffet. Instead, find something you like, get to know it, and use it. And be assertive about it.

         Remember - it’s a networking tool. Your goal should be more than to just ‘connect’ with people. You need to highlight your capabilities and be clear in stating your objectives when you invite someone to join your network. For all of the requests to connect I’ve received, only one has asked me to write a recommendation. Now that is someone whose purpose is clear, and serious. And I admire him. Perhaps I’ll try it!

         You are networking for a reason. When you are part of any networking community there is an explicit understanding that everyone is there for a reason. Help people understand how they can help you. It is up to them whether they choose to or not, but at least you have made it easier for them.

         Last but not least, ask how you can help others. Networking, in any medium, is a two-way street. People who expect others to help them but who are not ‘givers’ in return will be quietly frozen out. You can avoid this by actively looking for ways to help others, particularly those you hope will help you. Don’t be afraid to ask the question, “How might I be of help to you?” Then follow through.

I am a big fan of networking - of all types. I nag my clients about it constantly. Connecting with others is rewarding in all kinds of ways. Social networking opens up a new avenue for those of us who were not born to be social butterflies. So get out there and try it. Don’t wait until you hear yourself say “I wish I would have…”

Letter to the Editor: Your comments are welcome.