I used to think that “networking” was completely bogus, i.e., basically people just trying to use other people for their own ends by being friendly and pleasant at them. This seemed to be borne out by some “networking events” I went to where there was a clear dynamic of interesting/important people being networked upon by less interesting/important people and not getting very much out of it.
However, there’s an actually useful version of networking which is more than just a strange ritual practiced by MBAs. The idea is that you need to have good models of the people you want to “network at”, what they’re interested in, what/who they want to know, and their other general goals. Using this, you can predict who would find what things interesting, and thus you can be a useful conduit of information through a social graph. Transmitting information isn’t free, and so simply by virtue of being another reasonably helpful node in the graph, you provide value to the interesting/important people and can engage in trade.