Networking is a funny thing. We all know we should do it, that it can mean the difference between finding opportunity or finding failure. The old adage of “it’s not what you know…” isn’t always true, but it seems to be true fairly often (I know that I have had great things happen for me based on a recommendation or a friend’s kind efforts). But no one really explains how you’re supposed to do that.
I have been to two conferences that differ greatly, both in content and structure, from one another: the American Library Association Annual Conference and BizarroCon. At the former, business cards changed hands like car keys at a swingers party. Everyone is all too willing to exchange information at the drop of a hat. But for what purpose? You can’t seriously suggest that a reference librarian at a small community college in Florida with whom I talked to for exactly twenty seconds (fifteen of which was spent fishing out cards) is going to prove to be a good resource to me in the future. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s widely known that the real ALA networking is to be had after hours, at the local pubs and vendor-hosted parties. Why is that? Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the free booze. It’s the time to talk, to really get to know someone.
BizarroCon, in contrast, is all about that. There are no business cards to be distributed. There’s a hundred-something people milling about a relatively small area just talking to one another. People hang out, smoke cigarettes together and forge connections, even if that’s not what they’re setting out to do. There is a key difference between the strategies employed by goers of each conference: ALA attendees tend to go to professionally develop, while BizarroCon attendees go to be in the close proximity of like-minded individuals. I’ve done no study, but I’m willing to hazard a guess that more up-and-coming writers have found mentors, anthologies, and editors as a direct result of shooting the shit at BizarroCon than librarians have shoving hundreds of business cards into the hands of every influential-looking person who walks by.
So what’s the key to good networking? How can we achieve the sort of intimacy that comes from a good connection when we’ve only got four days each year to do it in? The simple answer is this: don’t do it in those four days.
I am reminded of the story of Richard Adams’ “The Fox in the Water” from Tales from Watership Down. In the story, the great El-ahrairah’s warren is plagued by the sudden invasion of a fox. He goes on a journey to clear his head and find an answer to his problem. Along the way, he helps a number of animals solve their problems with his intelligence and cunning. In the end, he meets up with a snake who recognizes him for all the help he has given to the other animals and rewards him with the answer to his own issue.
If you want a meaningful connection, you need to work for it. You need to copyedit someone’s book. You need to help them find a solution to a database problem. You need to help them develop a literacy program for incarcerated youth. You need to explain to them how to run a successful summer reading program. Your willingness to use your abilities to help others speaks volumes; your business cards say nothing.
So before you go off and click “connect” on LinkedIn, make sure you’ve found someone you have helped or are willing to help. Without any substance, those “connections” are just as fake as all of those MySpace friends you had back in 2005.