Lynne D. Schwabe was owner of Schwabe-May of Charleston, ran her own marketing consulting firm and is a nationally recognized motivational speaker. She has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Women's Wear Daily, and has appeared on CNBC's Power Lunch. She is now director of development for the National Youth Science Foundation. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Until recently, "networking" was a pejorative term. It was an indication of calculation, of putting oneself forward. "Social" is another weird word that used to mean a certain twinkly kind of high society; a People Like Us mode of letting some in and keeping more out.
It used to be that it was bad form to brag about one's accomplishments or to notice if someone was rich. "Peter, head of a Fortune 500 company? I had no idea. And, that much land? I just thought he enjoyed gardening. Of course, I've known him since before we were born, but it just never comes up…"
But social networking was supposed to change all that. "Social" in the online phenomenon sense was always about community: the global party where everyone was invited to sit under one roof. However, some people only want to be in the online equivalent of the first class lounge or the cordoned-off nightclub VIP area, surrounded by people they either know or want to know. Not people they like, necessarily, but people they identify with. Not much fun perhaps, but an important element in their complete vision of where they belong.
For instance, if you walked into a birthday dinner and said, "I am an Italian banker. I am handsome and from a noble family. I enjoy Formula One and polo, and I'll be in Gstaad next weekend — anyone fancy some heli-skiing?" you would be, well, gutsy. But online riffing allows for amazing myth-making: "Anyone up for kite-surfing in Anguilla this afternoon? Sitting on deck and the water looks awesome," typed from your sofa. Even online it's all about finding perceived peers. The media unknowingly or intentionally fuels this fire. When West Virginia coal magnate Chris Cline began dating Elin Nordegren, Tiger's ex-wife, one of the most circulated pictures showed the Cline yacht parked next to Tiger's yacht (Cline's is bigger). Of course, these are people who really are players rather than wannabes like most of the rest of us.
A new website called Best of All Worlds has sprung up. It is by invitation only and is a site for people who see themselves as "leading entrepreneurs and influencers" and who seek the like-minded. You might remember that Facebook was invitation-only for the first two years of its life, beginning at Harvard and widening to include the rest of the Ivy League and its alumni but eventually throwing open its door to the rest of us riffraff. Even now, though, when friend requests pop up on Facebook, most people check out their mutual friends to measure their caliber. And, there is a lot of spring cleaning going on, as people realize that they want to fine tune their "friends."
It's all about power ultimately, as so much of life is, when you join affluence.org after proving that you are worth more than $1 million, or beautifulpeople.com after proving you are attractive enough to be considered for dates by other people attractive enough to have the right to consider you. And so after the initial invitation, Best of All Worlds becomes less about whom you know and more about what you do. Do you drink fine wine, play polo or fly your own jet? Do you never miss a U.S. Open and dash to the America's Cup? Is your yacht bigger than Chris Cline's? These days, it's less about self-documentation with a wittily captioned picture of you at the state fair, which would sit comfortably on Facebook, and more about opportunity — a tool for treating your life like a business, for analyzing and strategically planning your connections, both personal and professional, a way to get where you want to go, to meet whom you want to know, and, in the end, to define who you want to be.
Innocent social networking is all whoop-de-do and barrels of beer and videos of sneezing pandas. But, just know that, for some folks, the fun is getting serious.