Tuesday, April 13, 2010

How online relationships create trust

I was talking to Paul and Dana Gillin about their new book, called the Joy of Geocaching. I would urge you to buy this book, even if you aren't interested in the sport. You'll see why in a moment.

Today's column isn't about finding small objects hidden in plain sight across the landscape. (It is actually more interesting than I make it sound.) It is about how online relationships can fuel and shape how we interact with our colleagues in the real world. You know, that environment that exists outside our desktops?

Our newspapers and Web sites are filled with stories about how the nature of friendship has become devalued as we go about connecting on MyLinkFaceSpace et al. But what few have covered is how the online world creates new kinds of communities, and builds trusted relationships that carry on in the real world of face-to-face interaction. And that is where the Gillins' book comes into play. In it, they tell stories of geocachers and how they have come to enjoy finding and hiding these objects.

There is one story of a woman who travelled to Toronto on a business trip with several colleagues. She left them at the airport, and was picked up by a stranger – with the only thing in common being that both were cachers. How many of us would climb into a car in another country with nothing more than exchanging a few emails? That involves a certain level of trust and comfort that just doesn't happen in the real world.

Other examples are people that use the Meetup.com site to find people of similar circumstances. And of course there are the online dating sites, too. Crowdsourcing is another. I am sure you could think of other examples.

This use of online connections to prime the pump for a face-to-face meeting happens more and more frequently because we are doing more than just sending emails, or friend requests, or linking to others via online sites. We are sharing a common bond, a series of interests. We are building an authoritative source of content, context and identity. And along the way, we start shaping these micro-communities one person at a time.

Yes, there are people who pride themselves on having thousands of "friends" or who can connect with celebs and CEOs alike. But that isn't what today's Internets are all about.

Yes, it takes a village. But increasingly, our villages are formed online and with hyper-specific interests – not just because we share a common street block or elementary school classroom of our children. This is nothing new. The early bulletin board systems were great at this. But what is new is the potency of these relationships, and how quickly they can come to fruition.

Sure, I belong to lots of different communities, some based here in St. Louis, some that include people from all over the world. And my biggest community is you, the Web Informant reader. Or I hope so. Do share some of your own online/offline relationship stories with my readers on strominator.com if you feel so inclined.

Self (and other) promos dep't

If you want to buy Paul and Dana's book, click here:

I will be on the Tim Taylor Digital Nation radio show this Saturday at 1pm Central, talking about Windows 7 migration tools and methods. This uses some of the research for articles and screencast videos that I have done for the Dell-sponsored site ITexpertVoice.com. If you are interested in having me come speak at your next group meeting about this topic, email me.

Finally, if you are going to be in St. Louis next Tuesday, do stop by and say hello at the Gateway to Innovation Conference at the Chase Park Plaza. While I won't be speaking, I do think the conference organizers have put together a great program.

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.