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This publication contains my personal views and not necessarily those of my clients. Since I am a lawyer, I do need to tell you that this publication is not intended as legal advice or as an advertisement for legal services.
  • Are These Social Media Relationships Real?

    He and I have never met.  And yet, he sent me the following message on Twitter a few days ago:

    You are very quiet at the moment. Is all well? (Or maybe you are away.) See you soon (virtually speaking), I hope.

    This message was prompted by the fact that I hadn’t published a blog post or tweeted on Twitter since March 13.  His was the first of several messages I received recently from folks I’ve only ever “met” via this blog or on Twitter.  They suspected something was up, and took the time to check.  As those messages accumulated,  I began to wonder if all of us were underestimating the strength of the human connections that are created and then flourish virtually via social media tools.

    If you listen to the social media skeptics, you’d find it hard to believe that people who haven’t met physically (but interact only virtually) could possibly have a “real” relationship.  Even social media proponents have on occasion suggested that the true value of social media tools is that the virtual interactions they enable pave the way for old-fashioned, face to face interactions.   Given my recent experience, however, I’m beginning to question if that’s right.  Granted, I’m working primarily from my own experience and some anecdotal evidence from friends, yet this (admittedly unscientific) sample suggests that many of us are finding that some of our more meaningful social relationships are virtual.  And, that’s not necessarily something to be pitied.

    No matter where you stand on the subject of social media, it would be wise to think objectively about the nature of the relationships you have. How do you determine if any relationship is “real”?  For me, it’s more than a matter of physical proximity.  Instead, I’d suggest evaluating the “reality” of your relationships on the basis of some or all of the following questions:  Like the inhabitants of the Cheers Bar, do these folks  “know your name“? Are they in regular conversation with you?  Do they offer information or questions that help you learn and grow? Are they supportive? Do they notice when you’re not participating?  And, when you are not around, do they check on your well-being?   If you can answer yes to these questions, does it truly matter if they live in your town or on the other side of the world?

    Ray Oldenburg suggested 20 years ago that most of us need three places in our lives:  the first place is our home; the second place is our workplace; and the Third Place is where we engage with the wider community.  For some, this Third Place is their place of worship, their social club, the barber shop or their equivalent of the Cheers Bar.  For increasing numbers of us, that Third Place in an online community that interacts via social media tools.

    When I received the various messages inquiring about my well-being during the last few weeks, I had to re-evaluate my own perceptions of online relationships.   What I’ve discovered is that my social media Third Place is increasingly important to me and the relationships I’ve formed online are just as “real” as some of the relationships I’ve formed the old-fashioned, face to face way.  So this blog post is my note of thanks to those of you who have checked in with me lately.   You are much appreciated.

    [Photo Credit:  Rob Dunfey]


    Published on March 29, 2009 · Filed under: People, Social Media, social networks; Tagged as: , ,
    15 Comments
  • denny

    I've never even virtually “met” you, that I'm aware of; and yet, I find myself wondering… are you o.k.? /Was/ all well with you?

    'Course, I'm also wondering if that was an appropriate use of a semicolon.

    Hope all is well with you. Good perception/observations.

  • http://blog.tarn.org/ Mark Gould

    Thank you Mary. When people ask me what the benefits of these tools are, I used to talk in terms of personal development: “by blogging I am improving my writing and developing my thoughts.” Over the past few months this has changed. I now see their importance in terms of the connections I make: “the people I have 'met' through blogging and twittering have given me new insights that I could not have got any other way.”

  • http://DougCornelius.com Doug Cornelius

    Mary -

    Welcome back.

    I see one of the transformations of Web 2.0 is that people are online using real identities. In the earlier internet, most people had a handle not linked to their real persona. Now Twitter, blogs, LinkedIn, Facebook and numerous sources are tied together to give a more complete persona. A real persona tied to their professional background. (At least for the people I connect with.)

    There is communication and shared experience online. Those are the basics of a relationship. Online lacks the benefits of face-to-face relationships. But you can convey a massive amount of information online that is hard to squeeze into a lunch.

    Whether it is online or in person is good to be in “a place where everyone knows your name.”

  • http://aboveandbeyondkm.com Mary Abraham

    Thanks, Denny. Things are beginning to get back on track for me.

    - Mary

  • http://aboveandbeyondkm.com Mary Abraham

    You are most welcome, Mark. If humans truly are the social creatures experts tell us we are, then it is these personal connections that will cement the place of social media in our lives and relationships. Your path from personal development to social connection is one many of us have followed online. The next challenge will be to preserve the online communities that enable these connections and keep those channels free from the spam and self-promotion that has been creeping in of late.

    - Mary

  • http://aboveandbeyondkm.com Mary Abraham

    Thanks, Doug. I couldn’t agree more. Thanks to Web 2.0, I now have a much more nuanced understanding of (and appreciation for) some of my friends and colleagues than I had before. And meeting online allows more opportunities for interaction and connection than when we are limited to face to face gatherings. Of course, once you add those face to face meetings to the mix, then the relationship becomes richer. But even without that, we are better off than we were before.

    - Mary

  • http://aboveandbeyondkm.com Mary Abraham

    Thanks, Ken. I too have had that experience. You can get to know someone through their writing in a way that’s quite different from meeting them face to face or on the telephone. And, as long as you’re dealing with the right people, you can enjoy online relationships that are richer than the intermittent insincere interactions that happen equally in the physical and virtual worlds. At the end of the day, location doesn’t matter as much as the quality of the people you’re interacting with.

    - Mary

  • http://www.adamsdrafting.com Ken Adams

    Yesterday I spoke on the phone for the first time with someone I've interacted with for a couple of years in blog posts, by email, and over Twitter. But once we started speaking, she had to remind me that we've never spoken before. Our previous interaction had been sufficiently “real” that speaking with her didn't feel like a momentous step up. And I expect that meeting her in person will also feel like just another facet of our current relationship.

    So yes, I think that virtual tools allow for a relationship that's plenty “real.”

  • warzabidul

    It's only online because those people aren't in the same geographic region as us. It's not by choice that we stay online. If going out meant we'd find many people being social then we would spend time differently.

  • http://chieftech.blogspot.com/ James Dellow

    Those relationships can be real. This actually goes back to the days of the old Bulletin Boards. You'll get a bit of taste of this from this Wired article talking about The WELL http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/5.05/ff_well… Of course Web 2.0 has freed us of the limitations of the old dial up BBS in ways that they could never have imagined at the time, however the human dimension doesn't change.

  • http://blog.tarn.org/ Mark Gould

    That's an interesting example, James. I used to be a member of CIX, the UK equivalent of the WELL (it even used the same software). I know that some people on CIX developed the kind of relationships that are often associated with the WELL, but I didn't.

    I think there is an appreciable difference between the collection of tools/means of expression/websites that make up Web2.0 and the old BBSs. If nothing else, it is possible to get a much more nuanced picture of someone from their blog plus twitter plus last.fm plus friendfeed etc, than it ever was from what people chose to show in short plain-text messages. As a result, although the human dimension doesn't change, it may now be closer to what you see online than before.

  • http://www.oldschoolventures.com Lou Sagar

    Ambient intimacy is talked about as being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible. Creative use of social networking tools empower us… If one is focused on connecting with people of shared interests…I think another dimension of intimacy…can be realized..
    Great Post..

  • Amy

    I couldn't agree more with you. I've been unemployed for about 2 months and have found that without Social Media, particuarly Twitter and FB, I'd be very, very lonely. Some people think I'm addicted, but what do they know? They're at work all day! I see it as human interaction in the absence of a workplace. Not to mention I'm single and have no kids. I”m missing 2 of the 3 places for social activity. I also feel like I learn more from my virtual world than I ever did in the corporate world. I just wish I could figure out a way to do this full-time.

  • http://www.oldschoolventures.com Lou Sagar

    Ambient intimacy is talked about as being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible. Creative use of social networking tools empower us… If one is focused on connecting with people of shared interests…I think another dimension of intimacy…can be realized..
    Great Post..

  • Amy

    I couldn't agree more with you. I've been unemployed for about 2 months and have found that without Social Media, particuarly Twitter and FB, I'd be very, very lonely. Some people think I'm addicted, but what do they know? They're at work all day! I see it as human interaction in the absence of a workplace. Not to mention I'm single and have no kids. I”m missing 2 of the 3 places for social activity. I also feel like I learn more from my virtual world than I ever did in the corporate world. I just wish I could figure out a way to do this full-time.