I'd say it's a qualified "Yes".
Let's be a little more clear on this, though. By networking, I mean the process of developing long-term mutually-beneficial relationships. To the extent that our activities on Facebook support this goal, Facebook is networking. So, what activities are and aren't a part of that? Let's take a look.
- Posting our status. Hmm. Maybe a little bit. This is essentially an undifferentiated broadcast -- all of our friends get to see what we write about, whether they are interested or not. In some ways it allows them to see an aspect of who we are, so to that extent it might deepen a relationship, but it's pretty weak in that respect.
- Commenting on another person's status. This is more like it. We are interacting with that person. We are also likely to be talking about something of interest to them. This probably has almost the strength of an exchanged email on the networking scorecard.
- Posting a link or other informational piece. This is kind of a mixed bag. If we are posting it on a fan page which is dedicated to this kind of information (and it isn't essentially an advertisement), then this definitely counts as good networking. People see us as supporting that community of which they are a part. Bonus points if we respond to any comments about our posting. On the other hand, if this is only a general post to all of our friends, or the post is only of general interest (a joke or general news item), or it's a (shudder) advertisement, then it has the same effect as a blanket email message to our entire email address book -- not much and possibly a bit to the negative.
- Suggesting a page to a specific friend who might actually be interested. Yes, definitely, especially if we include a personal note as to why they might be interested. Note that this is to a specific person.
- Suggesting a page to all our friends at once is definitely not good practice. I know I've received suggestions to things that just weren't me (such as a fan page for a nail salon in a different state). That pretty much told me that they didn't really care about me except as a number to add to the "fan list".
- Sending messages to a specific person. Yes. These are basically the same as sending emails to individuals outside of Facebook. They don't count for much on the networking scorecard, but they are points of contact.
- Sending "friend" requests. If they are to people we already know, then yes. Sent to people we've never meant, not so much. Once again, when I receive such a message, all I can think of is that this person just wants to increase the number of "friends" they have, not really to make friends.
- Playing games. No. No, dear God, no. If you enjoy playing Farmville, or Mafia Wars, or Werewolves and Vampires, or any of the other ninety bazillion games on Facebook, that's awesome and more power to you. Doing so, though, does nothing to establish or strengthen our relationships with our FB friends. Also, depending on the patience level of our friends, the constant chatter that these games generate can actually alienate some of our friends.
So, if we are using Facebook as one of the tools in our networking toolbox, that's great. It can be as useful as email and conceivably a great deal more convenient. No matter how much we want, though, it cannot be the whole of our interaction with the outside world. Just as with email, it's strength lies in the light touches which can help maintain an existing relationship. Similarly its weakness is that it doesn't do as well with creating new connections nor is it particularly efficient with deepening existing ones.
Image credit: Flickr user benstein