NETWORKING ONLINE:Meeting people online doesn't have to mean internet dating - you can expand your social life, widen your circle of friends, and even join an interactive online book club, using networking tools as Twitter, writes Rosemary MacCabe
ONCE A MONTH, in a cafe somewhere in Dublin city centre, a group of people gather together and have lunch. They talk about fashion, to begin with, then they migrate onto related topics – celebrity gossip, television, where the best sales are, and where they’re going on holidays. But theirs is no school reunion; before their first meet-up, a year ago this month, they didn’t know one another except in the most modern of senses: virtually. Their meet-up is for the monthly Fashion Bloggers’ Brunch, the brainchild of Annmarie O’Connor, a freelance stylist and fashion writer for whom the written word was proving somewhat isolating.
“When I started freelancing,” she says, “I was on my own, with my neighbours’ cat for company – I didn’t even have my own cat.” She started her blog ( iblogfashion.blogspot.com), she says, as a way of writing about the things that didn’t quite “fit” in the editorial pages of Ireland’s fashion glossies. “It’s a nice medium for inserting bits and bobs – half-diary, half fashion news . . . It’s all first person, whereas as a journalist you have to remain objective.”
But blogging is a lonely sport, and as a blogger you find yourself both writing and reading online, forging connections without making any tangible links.
“I was reading so many Irish blogs and I just thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great to get together?’, ” she recalls. “The brunch was an idea I borrowed from something I’d seen in Toronto and New York, and I thought it would be great to organise it for networking purposes.”
So the Fashion Bloggers’ Brunch was born and, one year on, the group has discovered connections that expand beyond mere networking. It fluctuates in size, as people leave Ireland and new bloggers are discovered – “I just found this great site, blanaid.com, so she’s coming to our next brunch; her site is really interesting, really great.
“It’s a bit organic; we have fashion as a link, so it starts with that like-mindedness,” O’Connor says. “We chat, we joke around; we talk about this, that and the other. I wanted to avoid making it corporate, it’s just a bit of a laugh. The idea was to network and, I guess, to have fun – so, as long as it fulfils those criteria, my work is done.”
Online social networking is nothing new; from the beginning of what could rightly be termed a “phenomenon” – as Bebo and MySpace gained ground, only to be replaced by Facebook, and the newest kid on the block, Twitter – people have used the internet to connect with people. But the current shift is towards what O’Connor terms “face time”; moving those virtual links into the real world and finding new friends in the process.
Darragh Doyle is no stranger to online meet-ups; as community manager at boards.ie, he witnesses first-hand the movement of friendships from online discussions to real-life interactions.
“Boards started as a forum for people to discuss Quake, the computer game,” he says. Before long, people who had logged on to discuss the game began to migrate onto other topics and, when complaints were made – “people going, ‘no, no, no, you have to discuss Quake!’ ” – new forums were established. Now boards.ie hosts a forum on almost every imaginable topic, from photography to motherhood, from fashion to cycling.
But, as with most things in life, evolution is the name of the game. From typing witty ditties to one another, people move to having coffee, going cycling together, then watching movies with one another.
In fact, Doyle says, people have met on boards.ie, married and had children – despite the fact that it is, to all intents and purposes, a discussion forum. The initial purpose isn’t, therefore, finding romance. The internet allows people to connect in a way previously unknown – to get to know one another before the face-to-face.
Twitter is the site that has moved online conversations from long, informative, e-mails to ad hoc “tweets” – status updates with a 140-character limit that allow you to express the most basic of your thoughts, your actions at a particular moment, or a burning question, the answer to which someone out there will, undoubtedly, be able to provide.
The difference, says Doyle, between Facebook and Twitter is motivation. “Facebook is about the people you know,” he says. “Twitter is about the people you want to get to know.”
Doyle conducts a lot of his life online. At our first meeting, he announces: “I work online and I live online.” But his life isn’t that of the lonely tech-addict of 1990s teen comedies.
“The stuff I do outside of my work, I record online,” he says. “I’ll see something funny and take a picture of it that I’ll then post online, or I’ll blog (at www.darraghdoyle.blogspot.com) about an experience, or I’ll get a chance to interview somebody and put that online. It’s sharing that little bit of who I am and what I’m interested in.”
The internet, he says, is about connections. “You can come online and say, ‘wow, I’m having a crap day’, and somebody will respond and go, ‘oh no, is there anything I can do?’ or they’ll send you a funny video. Twitter is conversation, you see; it’s sharing. It’s my Google. It’s the way I amuse people. I make people smile – or,” he says, with no small degree of self-awareness, “I try. I tell the most awful jokes, and I get reactions, people saying ‘you know what? That was awful, but it made me smile’.”
And Twitter allows you to learn about people in increments – 140 characters for every little facet of personality. “You get to know people, you develop a trust,” says Doyle.
Ciara Brennan is a law student who works in South Dublin Libraries. She uses Twitter, she says, mostly “to interact with friends”. Having observed people interacting on Twitter, Brennan made the decision, along with her boyfriend, Gavan Reilly, to start a Twitter-based book club ( www.twitter.com/dublintwookclub).
“The interaction between people with little in common fascinates me,” she says. “The initial idea was to have a regular book club, in our own home. The transition from real-life to Twitter happened quite quickly, as we decided to use social media to bring a different type of book club into existence, something we’re not aware of elsewhere in Ireland.”
The Dublin Twook Club is a monthly event, with books chosen by means of a poll on the club’s blog ( www.dublintwookclub.wordpress.com). It’s an amalgamation of “traditional” interaction – face-to-face – and online media. “We run a liveblog, streaming conversation directly from the room, so people who aren’t physically present can interact and read what’s being said.”
Brennan’s friends, she says, are all quite active online, but there are others, relative strangers, whom she has got to know.
“I’ve certainly got to know people on Twitter,” she says, but cites advantages to moving relationships from screen to stage. “In person, they’re generally far more engaging than Twitter’s 140-character limit allows.”
Like many who have forged friendships online, Brennan initially lacked the motivation required, for example, for dating sites. “I’ve never gone online to make friends,” she says. “But if it happens as an aside, isn’t that wonderful?”
Doyle thinks people are becoming much more open about their online interaction. The stigma – borne largely of a fear of men who wear short trousers without socks and women who talk in hushed tones about their 32-year-old friend who’s “still not married” – has left the building. “I’m meeting an awful lot of people now who tell me they met online,” he says. “Five or six years ago, you would never have said that; now, it’s not a big deal.”
But while meeting your other half online may seem like old hat, making close friends is a new turn of events. While 20 years ago, friendships were based on circumstance (school or work, for example), now people make friends based on a shared interest, beginning with a connection made online.
“If you work in a bank, you might have little in common with your co-workers,” says Doyle. “But you can find a forum online to share interests with people – you find yourself conversing with other like-minded people . . . then you’re in town one day and you tweet ‘I’m in town, anyone around for coffee?’ and you’ll find that someone always is.”
And that’s the beauty of it all – it’s an old cliché to say that, even in a crowd, you sometimes feel alone. Now there’s no excuse; just tweet about feeling alone and you’ll find that, really, you’re not alone at all.