Networking, meeting other people and leveraging each others' resources and providing support, is vital in today's economy. It is a way to maximize your own opportunities and to uncover those that may or may not be "advertised." But beyond the usefulness of Social Networking as a tool it is also a great way to generate "good karma". Helping others is always a good thing, and I've found over the years that there is some truth to the old adage "what goes around comes around". Believing and practicing this sort of business ethic also greatly enhances your reputation and your professional brand.
Forming support groups for the unemployed is a great way to meet new people, hear about new trends, who's hiring, what methods seem to work and which don't. It is also a way to gain secondary contacts which may help you in your future endeavors. But it is a give and take. It is a *sharing* model. "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" mentality. People who only take and take and take without giving are going to be the people that are left standing by the side of the road when the economy picks up. And believe me, when times are tough, people remember the bad much more readily than they do the good.
That being said, there are some times when "social" is not appropriate. My current employer attends a lot of job fairs, both from a candidate generation (getting resumes) standpoint and from a basic community outreach position. We are a very well known employer and associated with a large organization (university). A couple of weeks ago, I was at an industry job fair, and there was a long line at our table. I repeated a lot of the same information, handed out the same brochures, and explained the process often. I noticed two things about the candidates that approached in particular. One was that many of them came in pairs. This isn't that unusual in economic times like ours. However, as a candidate, you need to be aware of the fact that there are people behind you and that I am very busy trying to help as many people as I can. So when you are chatting with your friend to the exclusion of all else, you give me the impression that you aren't really serious about finding a position. You have the opportunity to talk to me, ask me questions, get my contact information, and make a lasting impression. But if you act as if speaking to me is cutting into your social life, I guarantee I'm not going to even look at your resume let alone contact you for a job.
And speaking of impressions, I was appalled at the number of people that showed up in jeans and t-shirts, wearing tennis shoes or flip flops or other casual attire. I don't expect unemployed professionals to come to a job fair necessarily wearing a suit, but at least go to the trouble to put on a nice pair of pants/skirt and a collared shirt with appropriate shoes. You can find a lot of decent clothing at thrift stores or discount retail outlets that don't cost an arm and a leg. Or borrow something from a friend or family member. I'd rather see something stylistically outdated but still professional over the latest Juicy Couture t-shirt. You don't need to go out and get your hair dyed and your nails manicured, but take the time to run a brush through it and file your nails so that they look neat.
Remember that you only have one chance to make that vital first impression. Do your best to be perceived as professional, whether you are going to a job seekers networking lunch or a construction worker's job fair. I guarantee you it makes a difference.
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