In response to a LinkedIn discussion thread about how the internet changed networking, I had the following to say:
I'll state up front that I'm in a field (information architecture) that is heavy user of social media and I have been involved in internet technology since I was at the College in the 80s. I have been networking frequently on the internet since 1997. Starting with AOL and Compuserv chat rooms, then Usenet and Yahoo! group type affiliations and then virtual meetups on Fast Company and other social networking pioneers.
The impact of the internet on networking is immediate, cheap and global.
The internet makes it easier to connect, increasingly in real time with tools like IM, Skype and Twitter and related apps built directly within the social networking site. I'm in NYC and with AOL Instant Messenger, I know when a colleague is away from his computer in Panama City. With Twitter, I know what a friend in London had for lunch and whether a group is meeting at a Thai restaurant in Tribeca later this evening. TripIt tells me if a certain user experience blogger I like is planning on attending the IA Summit in Memphis, and if I want I can send her an In-message via LinkedIn to see if she plans to attend a particular conference session.
The internet also makes it cheaper. There has never been so many free ways to contact people. I had a year long project with a colleague in Stuttgart. We connected exclusively on Skype and used online groupware software and FTP to manage the project. If I wanted to bring in another person for the project, I have access to several email lists and social networks.
The internet also makes time disappear in a way that is disconcerting. There is so much online to read, and in my field the most interesting stuff is published online, linked from Twitter or the IAI-members discussion list. It's hard to keep up. And with immediate the feedback of social networking sites, it's hard to pull away.
I do go to conferences and meetups, but I find myself choosing my F2F networking opportunities very carefully, because there are so many interesting opportunities in my field. Sometimes, it's the social networking sites where I find out about a workshop or lecture of interest. At one recent lecture, the speaker made a joke about how we are so tied up with Facebook that we need subway ads for Dentyne chewing gum to remind us how to be friends. But at this same meeting I could point to several dozen people whom I had followed via blogs and twitter, with whom I've had IM conversations very recently. and with whom I could essentially carry on an already ongoing conversation.
It's kind of bizarre. I met my German colleague in person at the IA Summit in Las Vegas, after we had been working together for many months. It was my first IA Summit and I didn't know many people well, so I mused that he was already my best friend in the room and we hadn't even met. It really changes your perspective on the big room full of people. If I'm feeling shy and can't find someone to chat with, I could conceivably twitter my whereabouts and get a response from someone over by the crudité table.