At various points, I’m sure we’ve all been advised that building our online presence is essential to making that next big leap in our career. And social networks are a huge part of that - after all, the word “network” is right there in the name!

While there’s no doubt that any kind of professional online discourse can be valuable (and, long story short, being on LinkedIn will give you a significant head-start on your career journey), there are many pitfalls along the way which can threaten to sap your time, energy and motivation.

All human life is here…

In the early days of the internet, “everyone can have a voice” sounded like a dream come true. However, in our naivety, we didn’t necessarily stop to think about the quality of the discourse or whether it would be influenced by people (or bots) who were trying to push their own agenda. Debate and discussion can quickly spill over into petty name-calling, point-scoring, or worse.

Even healthy discussion can have its downsides: we find ourselves creating “echo chambers”, by filling our feeds with people who share similar interests and opinion, and blocking those who don’t match our tastes. It’s one of the reasons why many of us were blindsided by Trump’s election win and by Brexit: we literally didn’t see it coming.

It takes skill and effort to shape a network to work the way that you want it. I learned this the hard way: in my early days on Twitter, on more than one occasion I used the “block” button to remove someone from my timeline, simply because their frequent posting was clogging my news feed. This became awkward when I met that person after giving a conference talk, and they asked me why they weren’t able to follow me on Twitter! It turns out that I should’ve been using the “Mute” button - this is obvious now in hindsight, but with new networks (and new features) launching on a regular basis, it’s a lot of subtlety to keep in one’s head.

Drowning in the infinity pool

Without wanting to over-generalise, so many of us talk about how little time we’ve got - and yet we’ll gladly spend an hour a day scrolling through our social feeds, often for no particular reason, just to see what people are talking about. We’ll often start scrolling through when we’re tired and looking for a break, only to discover that these apps are all-consuming as well. In Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky’s Make Time, the authors have a term for this:

Infinity Pools are apps and other sources of endlessly replenishing content. If you can pull to refresh, it’s an Infinity Pool. If it streams, it’s an Infinity Pool. This always-available, always-new entertainment is your reward for the exhaustion of constant busyness.

Most of us have our eyes open to the dangers of being a social media these days, and the saying “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product”. Networks are primed to measure for metrics such as “engagement” and “stickiness”, regardless of the quality of the interaction that you experience: that is to say, if you’re compelled to respond to a negative post, that’s as valuable an interaction to the network as if you were making a positive contribution. It’s all pageviews and ad impressions. (For a well-rounded primer on the subject, the 2020 Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma is a surprisingly good start.)

You do you

This is especially timely for me, at a time when I’m looking to grow my consultancy service. I know what all the things are that I should be doing, but I’m not a LinkedIn influencer. I don’t “get” TikTok. Twitter takes more than it gives from me at the moment. So I’ve accepted that these are outlets that I won’t spend my energy on right now.

For any given service, the value isn’t in the platform itself: it’s in the network that you create. You can foster these networks with a very “light-touch” passive approach: follow people whose voices you admire, take a look from time to time, but only when you’re in the right headspace for it. (And until something better comes along, I’d really strongly suggest ensuring that you keep your personal LinkedIn profile up-to-date: it’s the first port of call for recruiters, hiring managers and curious interviewers.)

Networking has, however, always been a face-to-face endeavour at its heart. You can foster better relationships through eye contact and body language than you’ll ever manage in fifty hours of Zoom calls, and although large gatherings can be sapping for those who class themselves as introverts, there is real value in making real-world connections - especially if social networks push all of the wrong buttons for you.

Key takeaways 📝

  • Networking is great for career growth - but it needn’t be done online.
  • Social networks aren’t inclined to put your needs first; don’t let them turn you into a tool for generating ad revenue.
  • Try to restrict social media usage to a set amount of time, and watch for signs that you’re getting sucked in too much. (Apps such as Freedom can help if you’re struggling.)