The Perils of Networking When Everyone Is Your Friend

NYC Pigeon

I know a lot of fascinating people.

I know writers and editors, chefs and restaurateurs, celebrity personal assistants and a few well-connected people in the television industry, pilots and programmers, museum curators and fashion designers. Many of the fascinating people I know I knew Before Social Media (BSM)*, while many others I “know” I have met thanks to sites like Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, etc.

I know as many details – if not more – about some of my online “friends” as I do about the ones I knew BSM. This is not necessarily because I’ve been stalking people’s profiles or Googling them. I have learned about them through reading their writing, corresponding with them, asking them about their lives. My online friends are the pen pals this introvert always wish she had: people with intriguing occupations and riveting travel stories available for a conversation within seconds of my bidding.

It doesn’t matter how I know people; the dynamics of acquaintance are so fluid these days. What has me concerned is that the more people that I meet, the more I feel like I am reducing my chances at achieving some professional goals. The more that I network, the less inclined I feel to use that network to land a job or ask for favors.

Yes, I’m going about this all wrong. But let me explain.

I adore meeting new people. While I’ve never considered myself much of a networker in the “real world,” socializing online feels very natural to me. For better or for worse, my head is filled with the minutiae of others’ interests: that guy works on death penalty issues, so let me send him this link; she is an eco-conscious mommy blogger, so she may be interested in this article on a new medical study; he likes planes; she’s traveling in Australia; etc.

I’m not sure how I keep up with it all, but it gives me great pleasure to connect the dots and share information with those I know will appreciate it. What’s more, having had this online interaction makes it easier for me to engage these friends should I meet them offline at a conference or happy hour. Being able to begin a “real life” conversation with a frame of reference, possibly even months or years in the making, puts me at ease. No doubt, I have acquired many real friends thanks to initial online contact.

So, what are the perils of this type of networking?

Over the years, as I have met fascinating people, I have corralled them into a virtual “friend zone” whose borders I am reluctant to cross. Once I know the name of a fascinating friend’s baby or allow a fascinating friend to enter my Facebook world of family photos, it becomes harder for me to ask them for professional advice lest they feel that I was using them all along. For example, once I am friends with an editor of a publication for which I want to write, asking her about the latest staff job posting or how to query her publication seems like a breach of trust on my part.

I know that job opportunities come along more often than not because of who you know not what you know. But how does a job seeker break out of the “friend zone” and feel comfortable asking for help or advice or a reference?

Social media has given all of us unprecedented access to people we never would have met BSM. This access has also helped to break down communication barriers, bringing our would-be idols down to earth and, sometimes, turning fascinating people into true friends. I am grateful for my ever-growing list of contacts. They are friends who perform all manner of jobs, live all over the globe, and inspire me to do more and reach higher. But I am also curious how I can use my network to my advantage without upsetting the friendship cart.

I have been looking for a professional “home” for years. And while I am content to freelance, I know that there are some awesome projects, part-time jobs, and full-time assignments for which I am remarkably qualified. Further, I have on more than one occasion linked an online friend to a job opportunity, a press trip, or a book-writing contract. What can I do to make others think of me when a job opportunity using my skill set comes across their desk? I know that I can not be passive in this pursuit, but taking an active stance does not feel natural when relationship dynamics are at stake.

Have you faced this problem? Now that you are connected to someone in an enviable position, do you feel reluctant to ask them how they got to where they are and how you can get there, too? Surely, I’m not the only one experiencing this networking conundrum.

*I use BSM (Before Social Media) for brevity. Please don’t think I’m trying to coin an annoying new anagram here!

Photo: ZeroOne

8 comments

  1. Andrewschreck says:

    Interesting read. I think it’s a number of things, but people won’t be turned off if you talk to them about work opportunities. They’re your friends and will be open an receptive. Get the word out among them that you’re looking. Follow up on things that you see they can help with, but be natural and friendly, “hey, what can you tell me about this position that I saw posted…” People want to help their friends and they want to work with them.

  2. Thanks, Andrew. That sounds like practical (and obvious) advice. I hate to bring gender politics into this, but I often wonder if there is an ingrained reluctance in some women to ask for what they want professionally? Just riffing here…no need to try to answer that loaded question.

  3. Andrewschreck says:

    You like those loaded questions. I’ll bite, yes I think that might play into it, but it’s more of a personality thing. It does seem disingenuous to certain personality types to hit up their friends. But it’s all for a good cause.

  4. nerdseyeview says:

    So Melanie. People ask their friends for help. It’s just a thing they do. And if you think it’s asking too much, and they’re genuinely your friends, the thing to do is say, “Hey, lemme buy you coffee. I want to ask you some stuff, is that okay?” People who are your friends — not “network-y” friends but ACTUAL friends — will say yes. Betcha.

  5. I think it’s more than just hitting up friends. This is putting the cart before the horse here, but I have a fear of losing the friendship dynamic with someone once they become a colleague or, worse, my boss. It’s an odd way to approach networking, I know.

  6. Rachel says:

    If it is the right person you don’t have to lose that friendship when they are your colleague or boss. Look how I know you. Anthony was/is my colleague and my friend. Don’t sell yourself short. Most people would love to have someone they know is great come work for them. When you hire someone you don’t know you hire the unknown. Everyone can seem fine for an interview.

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