There is a growing number of tools for networking on the web. Facebook is great for social networking, but it can be very distracting and difficult to manage. There are so many facets to it that it is probably inappropriate for direct communication focused on scientific exchanges. Indeed, there is a group in Facebook for construction management researchers. But it may make you despair of the human condition, because it is filled with trivial requests from people who are not researchers asking questions of an entirely random nature and with no sense of who their questions are directed at. It is pretty hopeless and probably needs to be closed down, yet there are more than 500 members on it from all over the world. Most of them just seem desperate to find someone to talk to, or seek a forum for advertising their wares. It fails where other tools succeed.
In our field, probably the most successful tool to date is the Co-operative Network for Building Researchers (CNBR). This has been going for 21 years and has more than 2500 members globally. It is only an email network, but it is really successful and enables some very useful discussions. It also enables unavoidable chit-chat and distractions, but not too much.
There are plenty of other places where we can develop networks, if we wish to. Academia.edu, for example. I have a profile there at http://reading.academia.edu/WillHughes and this enables me to connect with people who share my research interests. There is not the opportunity for chit-chat like there is on CNBR, and it is less intrusive in the daily diet of emails (if you set it it up right). You can upload papers and books, presentations, CVs, all sorts of academic outputs, and by tagging them with keywords, you become visible to like-minded people around the globe. This is a good way of finding new research contacts.
A new service is Mendeley. This looks like an excellent tool. Primarily it is useful for managing bibliographies. But it also enables the setting up of groups, whether for your own research team, for a department, for a global group of people who share similar interests. One really useful thing about this service is that unlike academia.edu, you don’t need to type in your publications from scratch, because it connects to many bibliographical databases and imports the details of papers that you identify as yours. It is quite quick to set up a profile and although I have only been looking at it for a day, it appears to have some really useful functions.
If networking with a mixture of practitioners and academics, I would recommend LinkedIn, because it has quite a good reach and does not involve all the distracting “fun stuff” that you get in facebook. It is a good way to get connected to all sorts of people, but if you are only looking for academic contacts, it is probably not for you.
Finally, if all you want to do is let off steam every so often and have a rant about something, get yourself a BLOG! I have found this to be useful for more than just the occasional rant. I can use it to collect advice and guidance that I give to students and to authors of papers in the journal. Over the months and years, a collection of guidance notes is accumulating here, and it is very easy to point people to short things that I have already written, which saves me from writing them again. I can return to edit old posts, and also place here contributions that I may have developed for other reasons (this post, for example, started out life as a contribution to an email discussion).
There is a lot to be said for using the appropriate tool for the job. It is highly unlikely that we will find one service that fulfils all aspirations. We need different tools for different tasks. Join me in some of these services, and we can explore these things together and see what we can achieve!