Why social networking is a good thing

It’s partly the geek in me, but there’s something about the social networking phenomenon which intrinsically suits my nature as someone who has always been a writer rather than a talker.

Until recently, the term ‘networking’ generally had a more business and career-related connotation: it was about having the right conversations with the right people at conferences and trade shows, or handing out business cards while collecting those of others who might prove useful contacts in the future.

Not any more.

‘Social networking’, as the name suggests, is much more about maintaining and expanding your network of friends, keeping you in touch on a more regular basis, and enabling new connections to be made with other people who share a common interest, whether it be pregnant mums-to-be, fans of the same TV programme, or fellow gamers. (You’ll probably be aware of many of the names and buzzwords already: Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Bebo, LinkedIn, Club Penguin, the blogosphere, and so on.)

But whereas in the ‘real’ world one would collect business cards, addresses and phone numbers, now one accumulates ‘friends’ (as you do on, say, Facebook and MySpace) or ‘followers’ (Twitter’s measure of personal currency).

As an example, this is me. I’m not particularly exceptional: ordinary 30-something guy, office job, a few deep interests, with a slight tendency to be a relatively early adopter of new technologies (i.e. mildly, but not World of Warcraft-level, geeky).

I have my ‘real world’ networks, of course. Family. Friends from university nearly 20 years ago (sadly, I’ve lost practically all touch with my old school friends). Current and former work colleagues. Friends I’ve made through sports. Friends of friends, that sort of thing.

But then I also have my ‘virtual’ networks. Some of my real world friends are here: social networking becomes a way of keeping up to date with people I see infrequently or who are now living on the other side of the world. (For instance, I have a good friend who now lives in New Zealand, who I have seen three times in the last six years, but with whom – thanks to Facebook – I am able to maintain some level of communication at least weekly.) But they are also places where I interact with people I have never met (and probably never will), but where friendships have formed because they are, say, fellow Arsenal fans. In many ways, these can be as close as – if not closer than – my ‘real’ relationships: I have a couple of online friends who I communicate with on an almost daily basis.

So, anyway, at the risk of looking like a bandwagon-jumper, here are the various social networking tools I have signed up to (most used first):

– Twitter, which I use in part to keep up with a handful of friends and to let them know what I’m doing, but mostly as a means of virally picking up and sharing relevant news

– Facebook, which is more about communicating and sharing photos with a wider circle of friends

– WordPress/Blogger, where I have both this, my personal blog, and ‘The armchair sports fan’ blog where I indulge my twin passions of sports and writing

– At work, I have recently started using Yammer (like Twitter, but with private company networks) and an intranet-based blogging tool to share ideas

– LinkedIn, for professional networking

– Audioboo, which is the voice-recording equivalent of Blogger

– I am also registered on MySpace, Friends Reunited and a couple of football-related forums, but I no longer use these actively (there are only so many hours in the day …)

Of course, online networking will never be a substitute for genuine human interaction, but in a world where our personal contact list of friends, acquaintances and business associates is flung further and wider than ever before, social networking allows us to maintain at least a basic level of interaction with large numbers of people in a way that has never been previously possible. That can only be a good thing.