When I first got started in freelance writing, I got so tired of people talking about "networking." By networking I don't mean computer networks, which as a geek I find interesting, and without which we wouldn't have lovely vehicles like the Internet with which to find, deliver, show off our work. I mean the kind where you imagine standing around in stuffy clothes and uncomfortable shoes, talking to people you don't know and trying to find out what they can do for you while they try to find out what you can do for them. Sounds about as appetizing as the rubber chicken you'll probably be eating at the dinner later.
You can learn networking skills many places. The first place I formally did so was at a local Society for Technical Communication chapter meeting. We were taught conversation starters, things to keep in mind (kind of like talking points), and generally how to work a room without feeling or looking like some kind of self-absorbed robot. I highly recommend that anyone take advantage of a chance to learn networking skills through their professional organizations or any other place they can, as they're invaluable in countless walks of life outside of politics and high finance. Whenever you need to find some new clients, a full-time job, a trustworthy contractor to build your deck, a babysitter, or even just the best place in town to spend a day with the kids, having a network is invaluable.
Don't fall into the trap of thinking that today's click-and-friend social networking craze takes the place of real networking. If the only way you know a person was from clicking Yes to a friend request and slightly reading their profile, you really have little reason to help them, and they have little reason to help you. Networking requires genuine human interaction. You might even make some actual friends. Who knows? I know I have.
Now, once you have met and managed real conversations with people, social networking tools can be an invaluable way to keep in touch. You have to know your particular peers and where they spend their time to know which places to focus on. Personally, I'm not interested in existing on every site people send me invitations to join. I don't have the patience, time, or focus to check a dozen sites on a regular basis. Instead, I have my lovely blog that you're reading right now--which doesn't really count as social networking I suppose unless you're on the same service and we've added each other to our respective Neighborhoods--along with a presence on Facebook and LinkedIn. There are also some professional email discussion lists I belong to (I know, how quaint, but I like them) around topics like technology journalists and computer book writers.
I suppose I should say here that I'm not necessarily the poster girl for social awareness and m@d s0cial skillz. That said, I do try, and apparently I manage to fool people that I have a clue on a semi-regular basis.
Anyway, along with knowing where your peers are hanging out, it's important to understand the dynamics of each place. Facebook, for example, I treat somewhat loosely. I don't really friend people that I don't know at all, but I'll friend people I know from personal settings, work settings, or even fairly vaguely. Facebook I consider kind of a big casual party with general chatter. I don't censor myself particularly much--though I am aware that people I know through work are reading. I take the opportunity to interact with people there that I don't necessarily get to talk to otherwise. On LinkedIn, however, LinkedIn is more like a corporate or professional organization gathering. I keep it professional. I don't ask people to link to me that I don't know. I keep it up to date, and consider my LinkedIn profile to be essentially an online business card. If you're going to be self-employed, or really even career-minded, you have to at some level be able to think of your business self not so much as a brand as many people like to push, but at the very least as business.
Now, with all of this talk about who can help whom, the last thing I want to advocate is being fake. At a networking event, everyone knows why they're there, you don't need any real pretext to ask them what they do and whatnot. Even there, though, it's possible to go overboard into the arena of crass self-absorbed nut. Ultimately all networking is a conversation, and like any conversation, there's a give and take, and making a real connection as human beings is the true goal online or in person. Not only will they remember you better and be more likely to call you if they have something interesting, but you might come out of there feeling a bit better about yourself and genuinely wanting to call a few people you met just for lunch. No business chat or rubber chicken required.