"Well, you're just talking with avatars."
That's a quote from an attorney I happened to be speaking with this week when we were talking about social networking. In his mind, Twitter and Facebook are not populated by people, but by little pictures.
He's not alone in that thinking. In talking with a technology investor a few weeks ago I was told, rather dismissively, that Twitter is just a bunch of people talking about what they had for lunch.
What these people are missing is that Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, FriendFeed (now owned by Facebook) and all these other tools essentially allow you a search engine for life. How many times have you been in a room looking at all the faces and trying to figure out who would make for interesting conversation? Usually a friend will lead you over to someone and say "you need to meet this person."
Or you'll overhear an animated conversation about your favorite baseball team or a good dinner they had recently. Just standing around you can get involved in that conversation and, eventually, it may turn into something more. You find out that this person lives in your area or has an interesting job, suddenly he/she is a contact!
Social networking tools, used wisely, offer you the same thing, but easier. Instead of looking at a sea of faces and trying to pick up the good conversations, you can run a simple search and find them. By seeing who your friends follow, you can see who they find interesting and listen in on those conversations. Suddenly, you'll find yourself involved, conversing and becoming the person OTHER people want to talk to.
But most important, don't make people just avatars. While Twitter and Facebook are great for connecting with people who are a world away, they are also wonderful at helping find people locally. All the tools are great for helping continue conversations, but nothing beats meeting someone face-to-face.
So let's break this down to steps:
- Join a social networking service -- I'm sure that 95% of the people reading this blog are already on Facebook and Twitter, but if you're not, then do it.
- Follow someone -- Start with someone you know, a buddy or something. Most services make it easy by doing a quick search on your Yahoo or Gmail accounts, then telling you who of your current friends are already using the service. Start with who you know. Of course, why not follow me?
- Listen -- You don't have to Tweet, you just have to listen. I suggest trying out Tweetdeck or Seesmic Desktop, but you can use the Twitter main page too. Run a search or two on something you love, for me it would be photography and the New York Jets, then see what people are saying. It's a start. Want to make it more professional? Throw in some keywords that are central to what you do. Or better yet, ask your peers for suggestions on some industry visionaries who are already using these services.
- Converse -- I'm sure that after listening for a while you'll have something to say, when you do, jump in. Over time those conversations will blend.
- Meet -- This is the critical step. Don't restrict your online conversations to just the online world. Get out and meet people. Look for Tweetups or even host one of your own. I've met some great people by just sitting at Taste on Tuesday mornings and telling solo PR folks to come on down!