The idea of networking makes me cringe. Here's the thing, though: I actually love connecting with people, and that enthusiasm works out for me professionally. I was referred to this job at Zapier because of a friend I made on Twitter, and the job before this was the same way. That's networking.
Now, I didn't reach out because I wanted a job. I reached out because I thought the people in question were interesting and doing admirable work. I wanted to talk with them...so I did. Connecting with people on those terms doesn't feel cringey to me because it isn't. It's human.
People are more important than your career, but that doesn't mean your career doesn't matter. So if you struggle with networking, don't make connections—make friends. Actual, human friends.
How to connect with people online without being a creep
I'm a writer. My background is in technology journalism, mostly on the service journalism side, and Twitter is the main place I connect with other writers. I follow writers I admire, occasionally respond to their messages, and become close with them over time. We help each other find work. If someone's in town, we'll hang out. It's nice.
Connecting with people improves your life, but it's hard, especially online. If you don't know how to start, you might think that you're being a huge creep. You're not. I've written about how to small talk while working remotely, and the general principles are the same on just about any social network. Here are a few tips:
Compliment people's work. Very few people take the time to reach out when they like one of my articles, and the people who do make my day. I bet it's the same in most industries. If you admire what someone does, tell them. It's not weird—it's the best. Just don't be transactional about it.
Don't compliment people's appearance. In the immortal words of the best account on Twitter: THIS 👏 IS 👏 NOT 👏 A 👏 DATING 👏 SITE 👏. Seriously, though—compliment people on the things they do and create, not their physical attributes. The first thing is kind; the second is bordering on illegal. This is not particularly complicated.
Respond to questions. People post questions on social networks because they want to start a conversation. Take that opening, say something insightful, and follow up if the conversation starts flowing.
Don't insert yourself into conversations. Sometimes a stranger will follow me on Twitter and immediately join a conversation between me and one of my friends (who they also don't know). This is uncomfortable—don't do it. Get to know one person, or ideally both people, before inserting yourself into conversations.
Be funny. Humor is the single greatest tool for connecting with others. If you spot an opportunity to be funny and think the person would enjoy it based on what you've learned about them, go for it.
But don't force humor. If you don't know someone's vibe, you don't know what they find funny. Lurk for a while, then respond when you have a feel for their sense of humor.
Bring up interesting information. Knowledge is cool, links to read are great, and sharing it makes the internet a better place. If someone shares something interesting, share something similar you think they'll like. That way there's more interesting stuff, which is great.
Don't argue with people you barely know. Rule: if you have the urge to begin a message with "Well, actually," consider instead throwing your phone into a volcano. You might love arguing...that's great. Not everyone does, and the internet is exhausting enough. Don't try to connect with someone by telling them they're wrong—it doesn't work.
In summary: try to be a good hang.
If you add to the conversation, and make using the internet better, people will like having you around online. If you make life worse, they won't. Over time, you'll find yourself in online friendships, which are actually just friendships.
Connect with people, then connect them to each other
I'm an immigrant—at least, I'm an immigrant if you consider Canadians who move to the United States immigrants. At one point, a fellow immigrant—this one from Russia—asked me how one goes about getting jobs in America. Specifically, jobs in tech.
I had no idea how to answer that question. First of all, while I work in tech, I hardly took a traditional path. I went from journalism to IT to tutorial writing to somehow writing about my feelings and calling it content marketing. I couldn't help anyone recreate my career trajectory if I wanted to.
So I said what I'd say to anyone: connect with people. Go to meetups. Hang out with people online. Don't do this with the expectation of getting a job; do this because talking to people is great, and talking to people interested in the same things as you is even better.
Then, when you need help, ask. I sincerely enjoy connecting friends who are looking for jobs with friends who are trying to hire. I promise your friends will feel the same way. This isn't why you should connect with people—that's a terrible way to live. But your career, and everything else about your life, will be better if you connect with people, online or off.