Social media making you lazy?

Wendy TownleyIn early May, I found myself surrounded by nearly six-hundred creatives from more than twenty states and three countries right in my own backyard.

The third annual Big Omaha conference, which dubs itself as “The Nation’s Most Ambitious Conference on Innovation and Entrepreneurship,” returned to my beloved downtown Omaha to ignite ideas and connect creatives.

What I found so particularly intriguing about Big Omaha was not just the number of familiar faces I saw throughout the conference, but the sizable number I didn’t even recognize. Omaha – as I would assume like many cities its size – is a big, small town. We assume we know everyone who works here; and if we don’t, it’s only a matter of time until we do.

In the past two years of attending Big Omaha and similar local events, I have almost always recognized the vast majority of attendees. But Big Omaha 2011 was completely different. Looking around the expansive and culturally rich space of the Kaneko, Big Omaha’s home for the past three years, there were more faces that I had never seen before.

And Big Omaha organizers are the ones to thank for that. The buzz surrounding their conference has grown considerably in a short period of time and in a very grassroots fashion. Not just the “cool kids” of Omaha (and I say this in jest, of course) are in attendance; Big Omaha has billed itself for everyone.

As I listened to the presenters and mingled between breaks, grabbing a snack and chatting up new acquaintances, I had an epiphany of sorts: Networking such as this is absolutely invaluable. I would undoubtedly connect with several of my fellow conference-goers on Facebook and Twitter in the days and weeks following Big Omaha. Yet that initial interaction, that simple, “Hello, my name is … ” or “What did you think of that last speaker?” is decidedly much easier and even more meaningful when it happens in person.

And that’s even if the first encounter is only a few moments in length.

Which is the whole point of networking in the first place, isn’t it? While I consider myself a social butterfly who loves a great event with faces new and old, I will admit that some laziness has crept in by way of social media. Of course I’m able to track down someone and introduce myself with a direct message on Twitter or wall post on Facebook. But is that initial meeting meaningful? Especially when that person also lives and works in my own community?

I was reminded at Big Omaha of the importance of really doing the legwork (pun intended) of networking and meeting others. The goal simply isn’t to collect a stack of business cards, but to really make connections. To inspire one other, and even gauge the possibilities of collaboration.

That’s what was happening all around me at Big Omaha: continuous collaborations, and plans for future projects. The chatter was energizing, the promise of next steps and new ideas. And while a conference such as Big Omaha is a great setting for such inspiration and networking, it needn’t be the only option.

I challenge you to do more networking away from the computer, the iPad, the cell phone. (The Creative Freelancer Conference, this June 23-24 in Chicago promises to be a perfect opportunity.) Put down the gadgets and let your conversation be your guide. Even if you don’t anticipate any need for meeting new people, you will surprise yourself. For folks whose only networking tactics are blasé email blasts or boring, sales-like tweets, you’ll be leaps and bounds ahead of the game.

All because you smiled and said hello to a stranger.

BTW: Check out Wendy’s book, Nerdy Thirty