In My Opinion: Nick Clayton: How I wasted my working life on social networks

WHEN I moved to Ibiza nearly nine years ago, I thought online social networking was going to be my professional salvation. I was either prescient or stupid. Probably the latter.

I knew working online wasn’t a problem. I’d been doing that for years. If I could receive a press release, interview the perpetrator on the phone and type the results into a computer at North Bridge or in any other newspaper office, I could equally well do that from home. And it didn’t matter where home was. That was the theory behind my move to ‘a desk in the sun’.

The real challenge was going to be keeping in touch with colleagues and the people who could give me work. That’s where I thought online social networks would fill the gap left by my absence from press conferences, events and even from casual conversations in the pub. I could see my work life was heading online, so why not my networking as well?

At the beginning of 2004, however, there weren’t actually too many options on the web. At that time Facebook was on the verge of launching. Twitter didn’t exist. MySpace was far and away the most popular online network, but it was hardly the best place to find work unless you were aged under 25 and in a band.

Of the websites that are still around, business-oriented LinkedIn was, to me, the future of networking, with the emphasis on the last two syllables. But I didn’t see even its dominance coming. Instead, I expected loads of specialist online social networks to appear, reflecting life away from the internet. I thought, for instance, there’d be one for journalists, perhaps coming from the NUJ and, optimistically, raising interest in the organisation and its objectives.

So I waited for a million online forums to blossom. They’d offer a much more efficient way to interact. Not only would you avoid the wasted hours travelling to meetings, but you wouldn’t need to worry so much about about timing either. It doesn’t matter whether you post a response to a forum at 8pm or 8am. With no meetings to go to, networking online even saves money on drinks.

I wasn’t wrong about social networks booming, but they certainly haven’t made the freelance hunter-gatherer part of my life more efficient. Much the opposite. Professionally, they’ve been great for keeping me in touch with other freelances, which is nice, but we’re probably the worst people in the world at providing work for each other.

I’ll explain. Along with just about every other freelance writer, I’ve dreamed of having too much work since I gave up a staff job. But, in the unlikely event of that ever happening, who would I pass work on to? Somebody who might do better than me? There’s an obvious risk there. Perhaps I could give it to somebody I don’t find too impressive. But, recommending a lousy writer to a commissioning editor isn’t exactly going to stand me in good stead once my hypothetical glut of work has disappeared. In other words, I’m not the best person to come to if you’re looking for work.

There are a few other built-in networking contradictions. Social media pundits will tell you that you’ll only get out what you put in. That may be true. I’m a writer for a living and posting in social networks is just a variation on that theme. As a result, I’ve found that working for free is a good way of getting jobs, but they tend to be the sort for which you don’t get paid. That’s not always the case, but all too often it is.

Also as a freelance, you’re an archetypal sole trader. (‘Soul trader’ would perhaps be a more accurate description. If only the Devil would answer my calls.) It’s not the sort of job where you’re trying to build a business and get enough work to employ other people. That can make promotional activity on social media a bit contradictory.

What you are trying to do is market yourself by creating a persona on LinkedIn, Facebook or wherever. Even if it’s what you feel, you can’t really do the online equivalent of standing up with a placard reading: Freelance journalist: Will write for food. (Full disclosure: I’m currently copy-editing a cookery book.)

Your natural inclination is to try and create the impression that you’re a busy, hard-working hack, and that ‘freelance’ isn’t just another word for ‘unemployable’. You can be too good at this, as I discovered. I bumped into somebody a couple of years ago (at a conference, as it happens) who said they would have offered me some work, but they thought I was too busy. And so I was. Too busy doing stuff on LinkedIn and writing unpaid blog posts.

Now, if I’d spoken to the person who said he would have offered me work if I hadn’t seemed so busy, the problem might not have arisen. In a private conversation, I could have been a little less economical with the truth. Of course, my seeming too busy might just have been an excuse for not using me. Who knows?

But it does illustrate the reason why I have probably been most enthusiastic about posting on social networks or lurking on forums over the last few years. It avoids the scary prospect of actually pitching and pestering the people who could give me work. I’ve just sort of vaguely hoped they’d come to me after seeing my wonderfully-crafted words.

If you don’t ask, you don’t get rejected.

Nick Clayton writes about technology, business and property for the Wall Street Journal Europe. But he is not too busy to turn down any commissions. Er, find him here on LinkedIn and twitter.