I had a nice lunch the other day with Felix Yip, a planner at R/GA in NY, while he was in Toronto for a few days. We've been virtually connected for a while but had never actually met in person. But we launched into conversation like we'd know each other for years.
I've been thinking about something for a while, and over the course of lunch it got clearer. The best part about all the Twittering and Facebooking and other social networking platforms is that they're not an end in themselves - it's how they are changing real life interaction.
Now of course they're doing this in the obvious way that we are exposed to new people outside our immediate social circle. Felix and I wouldn't have known each other were it not for the plannersphere. As of this week, now we have a face-to-face friendship as well. That's also the lovely thing about all the various coffee mornings that have sprung up around the world - making the virtual physical. But you already knew that.
Social networks are also changing real life interaction in a more subtle way that is more important and interesting, I think. It's changing the dynamics and flow of our in-person interaction. There's now a shared social foundation, which has removed the need for a lot of the superficial pleasantries of conversation.
With a new face-to-face relationship, there's no longer a need for an introductory 'getting to know you' talk, since you already know their background and social circle and what they've been up to recently. That 'getting to know you' talk has always served a purpose of easing in and establishing trust. It's a mutual feeling out process to ensure common ground and comfort before divulging more of yourself. But now that trust and comfort and common ground is pre-existing. Social networks lay that foundation for us.
It's not just with new people either, with existing friends I've been noticing there's no catching up - nobody says "so what have you been up to?" anymore. I know how your vacation was (and have seen the pictures), what mood you were in this morning, how your big meeting went last week, etc. So conversations become less about details and more about getting straight into the meaty stuff. And given we usually only have a limited amount of time face-to-face with people, that's an important shift.
So I wonder if one of the real benefits of social networks isn't socializing, it's pre-socializing. They allow us to keep up with the factual details (where someone is, what they're up to) of someone's life in an unobtrusive, easy way, and then when actual socializing happens it makes it much more interesting and fulfilling.