It wasn't so long ago when networking devolved from a novel career-boosting tactic to something every aspiring go-getter not only did, but trumpeted at every turn. Now the same fate seems to be descending on social networking - the art of interacting through online venues such as Twitter, blogs and Web sites devoted to personal and career profiles.
When traditional networking became trendy, it attracted parasites. Self-styled gurus jumped in to make a living from portraying it as all things to all people. Obscured by concentric layers of hype and legions of unthinking followers, the values and meaning that initially attached to it - information-sharing, silo-busting, win-win outcomes - became ever harder to discern.
The same dynamic is beginning to afflict social networking. A recent Harvard Business Review blog article is a case in point. The authors, Deloitte technology strategists John Hagel III and John Seely Brown, hold a bleak view of what they call "classical" - i.e., face-to-face - networking:
In the classical networking approach, the game is about presenting yourself in the most favorable light possible while flattering the other person into giving you their contact information. This approach quickly degenerates into a manipulative exchange where the real identities of both parties rapidly recede into the background, replaced by carefully staged presentations of an artificial self. These staged interactions rarely build trust. In fact, they usually have the opposite effect, putting both parties on guard and reinforcing wariness and very selective disclosure.
That's a fair representation of a certain segment of networkers - in the same sense that Raj Rajaratnam is a fair representation of a certain segment of hedge fund managers.
From Scheming to Kumbaya
When discussing social networking, however, Hagel and Brown's seemingly cold-hearted attitude toward human motivation gives way to sweetness and light:
A learning disposition leads to a very different approach. Now the effort focuses on understanding the needs of the other, with a particular focus on understanding the biggest issues others are wrestling with. This requires intense curiosity, deep listening and empathy that seeks to understand the context that other person is operating in....
Much can be learned simply by exploring the experiences of the other person, but even more can be learned by finding common ground - identifying common issues that you both face. This provides a context to work collaboratively in addressing particular challenges or opportunities that draw out the experiences and knowledge that you both have and end up creating new knowledge. Now we are beginning to tap into not just flows of existing tacit knowledge, but generating flows of new knowledge... As you both begin to see common issues and gain experience in coming together to address them, trust and the foundations for a longer-term relationship are built.
If I may paraphrase (cue the Beatles melody): All you need is Twitter, Twitter.... Twitter is all you need.
Hagel and Brown appear to believe that interacting online with prospective like-minded people leads straight to the Eden of mutuality, trust and community-building... while interacting with similar people face-to-face leads in the opposite direction. Let's consult the tape. On the most popular social networking sites, does the collaborative, win-win style predominate?
View From the Mountaintop
At least one frequent commercial user of social media communications doesn't think so. Los Angeles marketing strategy executive Freddy Nager unraveled Twitter's social structure in a long, tongue-in-cheek post last October on his Atomic Tango blog.
Adopting the voice of a mythical guru he'd visited on a mountaintop to learn how to attract more Twitter followers, Nager writes: "Most active users are there to self-promote, not listen. Everyone knows 'follow' is a euphemism." Nager's caricature "guru" begins by urging him to deliberately court followers from the dregs of cyberspace - professional spammers, including multi-level marketers. Then the guru says:
If you want followers, you must follow everyone you encounter - and then some! First, obviously, follow everyone who follows you. ...Then go out and find others to follow. The best are those already following thousands of people on Twitter. Their massive 'following' number tells you they're completely indiscriminate about who they follow. Indeed, they might even have their accounts set on auto-follow.
At long last, Nager divines the business justification for the sage's advice:
The reason people like you want thousands of followers is not because you have wisdom to share. That inflated number of followers lets you claim to be an expert, so you can charge Twitter newcomers for essentially common sense and spam.
From what I've seen of Twitter, that sounds accurate. Indeed, the incentive to monetize "followers" - a likely proxy for future page visits (ka-ching!) - is no less prevalent in the blogging and social media world than in explicit e-commerce sites. And the end result, as Nager's fable illustrates, is the very same manipulative behaviors that Hagel and Brown associate with "classical" (offline) networking.