I recently attended my 20-year high school reunion and realized that social media radically changed our relationships. I hadn't seen most of my friends since our 10-year reunion, but our connections after 20 years seemed stronger than they were at our 10 year reunion. Sure we had a lot less in common now (I came with a 4 week old and many of them had 14 year olds), but we seemed to mesh quickly. Instead of catching each other up, we were able to talk about what we were doing now. We weren't being rude - we already knew each other through Facebook. I had seen their wedding photos, children, vacations and knew about their jobs. Many of us had been chatting online for several months and making plans. I walked into a warm room of friends instead of a cold crypt of past memories.
At the 10-year reunion (2000), we had none of that connection. Although I had fun, we were forced to wade through a decade of life at the beginning of each conversation. We also made a lot of broken promises to keep in touch. This time, we continue to chat online and several people have plans to connect in person soon.
This leads me to the point I seem to be making regularly with friends and work colleagues - Social media ALWAYS leads to more in-person social interactions. When you talk to more people online, it leads to more opportunities to see each other in person. Of course I don't see all 500 of my Facebook friends, but I see more of them than I would without Facebook.
The theory that interacting with people online satisfies our need to connect with people so we don't make the effort to go out is simply not true. With over a decade of experience on social networks, I see social media as a catalyst for personal connections that ultimately lead to more in-person meetings. In simple terms, people don't stay home to talk on their computers on social networks when they have the chance to see those people in person.
Social media is a lot larger than Facebook and some social networks are certainly more social than others. On the whole, they connect me with colleagues, help build a career, make me a better brother and even a better father.
Before I break into a social media song, I'll pause to share the social media resources that drive the most face-to-face interactions for me:
1. Facebook events from friends - In the San Francisco Bay Area it seems that every event has a Facebook event. When I check the events my friends are attending, I often find great things to do.
2. LinkedIn - The interface for events is still a bit difficult, but again this great network seems to be a great place for what is hot. Because it is a professional network, people behave well and work to provide a lot of utility in their interactions.
3. Foursquare - My Foursquare network is small and growing, but nothing tells me better about what is hot with my friends than the check-in count at a venue.
What isn't on this list? Twitter isn't really a tool for me that drives more real-world interactions. It is very valuable as an information tool, but basic social tools are missing and spam is too high for me to really connect well with a large group. That could change as others build more tools on top of the Twitter platform. I've collected a lot of followers and friends on Google Buzz, but this network hasn't yet driven any meaningful in-person interactions. Yelp has the potential to be really socially meaningful if they can get people to use their real names. A message that says "Mark H. commented on your review" means nothing to me because I don't know that person. To know that Mark House, my childhood friend, found my review and reached out would be engaging.
Some people are naturally more social than others, but social media drives us all to get to know more people online and leads to more real-world relationships.