This is exactly the same question I have been asking for a long time now.

It is no secret that I have been a Twitter fanatic. When I first started using it, as a small business owner, I saw so many possibilities for me as well as for job seekers. Twitter, unlike other social media outlets, has many interesting layers. It can be a networking tool, information-gathering tool, and marketing tool. As a result, at least in theory, it can open doors that were once before difficult to open, and it does so in a less formal environment than LinkedIn, which can get a little stuffy at times.

But Twitter can also be a gigantic time sucker.

Worse than Facebook or LinkedIn, Twitter can draw you in, and when it spits you back out, hours later, you can easily wonder what was really accomplished.

Now, some of you might be thinking, “I still don’t really ‘get’ Twitter. I go on there, and it is a sea of comments not really going anywhere.”

And for the newbie, that is exactly what it is. Unlike Facebook or LinkedIn, which are more user-friendly (you set up your profile and link up with people you know first and then join groups where you might meet others), Twitter is a bit like being tossed into the middle of a crowd of people all talking to themselves.

And that is where the time sucking begins.

Twitter isn’t so much a time sucker because you spend a lot of time “stalking” others like you might looking through people’s photo albums on Facebook or perusing their profiles on LinkedIn. No, on Twitter, where you will begin to lose time is in trying to turn this sea of non sequiturs into real conversation.

Now, Twitter does try to help you out…a la hashtags and Twitter chats.

By following hashtag streams and showing up for “chats,” you can start to find some real engagement with people who are interested in discussing the same things you are.

And then that is where the time sucking can come on full force.

So now you think you are actually starting to get somewhere, you are adding followers and you are talking to people instead of at them. You show up for the chats like Norm walking into the bar on Cheers. You find yourself thinking about clever things to say at the next one, and you don’t let little things like traveling and watching TV with your family members get in the way of participating because you just bring the chat(s) with you.

You are hooked…because you are “engaging.”

After all, isn’t that what social media is all about?

Yes, on the surface, yes. If you are looking for an outlet in which to meet people virtually to discuss different topics of interest, then you have come to the right place.

And there are certainly a lot of high-minded social media purists who will say that is what social media should only be about.

But, we live in the real world. And in the real world, social media isn’t thriving on engagement (shock and awe); it is thriving on turning that engagement into opportunities.

If people don’t create opportunities from the engagement, then it’s all just conversation.

And really isn’t that true for all types of networking, including face-to-face networking? You can attend lots of events and have lots of nice conversations, but how often is it leading to opportunities?

Now, once again, my social media purist pals will say, “social media is about giving, not taking.” Many of my fellow career colleagues will second that sentiment (I know because we’ve been “chatting”) with comments like, “networking is all about doing for others.”

Of course, we know what they mean. They want you to understand that you don’t “spam” people with your needs/wants. You don’t expect things that you aren’t willing to give in return. You share and promote others.

But, let’s face it, networking, social or otherwise, is not a charitable event. And it shouldn’t be.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t help others or that you should spam them with your desperation. But we should bring enough value to the engagement to position ourselves for referrals or recommendations.

This is authentic use of Twitter, any social media, and networking in general. We’re there to build connections that recommend and refer services to solve problems we each have, and you want to be part of that referral pipeline.

In other words, we “engage” in the free market.

We give. We act as a resource. AND we position ourselves to be the Go-To referral in our area of expertise.

This is as much true for the small business owner as it is for the active corporate job seeker or the passive candidate.

So can you tweet your way to the top on Twitter?

Well, it depends. To the top of the engagement meter, sure. You can ignore your family and talk all day if that suits you. But if you can’t turn all those chats into something actionable, well, then, you’re just…chatting.