Who’s your people? On building online networks

“Who’s your people?” She demanded, looking him straight in the eye.

“Ummm. Pardon me, ma’am?” He replied, tentatively.

I was not sure if he couldn’t understand her thick southern accent, or if he couldn’t understand the nature of her question.

“Who’s your people?” She asked again.

After a moment, her daughter – my great aunt – who was playing hostess and serving up delicious slices of pecan pie jumped into the conversation to help out, “Oh, Mama, he’s not from around here. You don’t know his people.”

This conversation took place the first time the man who would later become my first husband stopped in with me to visit my great-grandmother in Savannah, Georgia. It was the first time I brought someone from my life to meet my granny, and she was searching for a connection, trying to find some node in her network that might connect to his network. Nevermind that I had never lived in Georgia, nor had he. Nevermind that she had not travelled far beyond Georgia and South Carolina.

Last week, as I started a new online class and asked my students to create blogs that they’ll maintain for the next six weeks and create Twitter accounts, I observed various students pondering who they might follow on social media, and who in turn might follow or interact with them. Other students shared a bit about the people with whom they’re already connected online. Still others offered thoughts about the people who they know are online and with whom they definitely do not wish to associate or even encounter. Among our tasks in this course is to learn how to use Twitter (and other tools) professionally, and to develop networks that will support their professional development.

Who should my students follow on Twitter? Whose blogs should they read? What other platforms should they be using? I can’t really give them a concrete answer. It all comes back to the same question my great-grandmother asked: Who’s your people? The only difference is that rather than defining their “people” as the family they were born into and the other people who have played formative roles in their lives so far, my students need to be thinking about whose presence would somehow enhance their lives (no matter how small the ways).

“Who’s your online people?” can be a difficult question to answer. We can replicate our face-to-face networks, both social and professional, in online environments, but that’s someone limiting. The online world extends so far beyond one office, or even one company.

Family and friends may seem like the obvious choice, but not for everyone (and not every family member or friend). Supposing people can navigate through that challenge on their own, likely experiencing a few hiccups along the way (Drat! Why did I friend my cousin Marty? Everything I do will now get back to his brother Sam, who I definitely don’t want to have a social media window unto my world). Many of my students have mentioned creating accounts on social networking sites at the urging of family and friends and then thinking “Is that all there is?” because … well, because they haven’t found their online people.

Further, connecting with family and friends via online networks still doesn’t solve the issue of how to develop a professional online network. Family and friends are the people you want to talk to over dinner and celebrate birthdays with. They’re the ones who get to know the real you. But they can’t necessarily give you career advice, and they probably haven’t (unless they’re in the same field) performed the same work tasks and struggled with the same work problems. And they probably can’t help you solve a work problem and get a promotion. They may not even be interested in the minutiae of your field that you find fascinating, and may look bored whenever you start to talk about work. Nope, family and friends may be your people, and they may connect to you online, but they aren’t are not necessarily your online people.

So how do you find these online people if they’re not already in your face-to-face social network? It seems like common wisdom that you don’t just start interacting with complete strangers online … or do you? Although the teenagers who participated in a recent study I conducted tended to classify online strangers as “creepers,” most adults can readily see that the actual “creepers” make up only a very small percentage of online people. Still, there is a lot of noise floating around the online world, and it becomes necessary to select which signals will be relevant and suppress or avoid the ones that would be noise. Sticking to this metaphor of signals and noise, one person’s signal is another person’s noise.

Most likely, the development of a professional online network will involve interacting with complete strangers online, and that’s okay. The key is to find the strangers who share relevant interests and have valuable (from your perspective) knowledge and expertise. Instead of being born to these people, or living next door to them, or working in the next cubicle, you discover them and click a button so you can find them again. You’ll find them through searches, recommendation engines, professional organizations, and existing connections. You’ll follow your passions, and these are the people who will be landing in the same spot, with the same interests. You’ll need to take a chance on them, and make a connection, knowing that you can hide them or mute them or disconnect altogether if the connection is not worth keeping. And that’s how you find your online people. You might not recognize them if you were seated next to them on an airplane (although probably you would because they most likely have a photo posted to an online profile), you’ll come to know them online. You’ll see what they ask and what they share. You’ll see who they’re connected to, and further expand your network through them. You’ll know they’re your people because when they post something you read it and feel thankful for it, or want to reply, or save their post, or think that this person is a kindred spirit. They’re your online people, and they’ll help become a part of your personal and professional development.

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