The debate of labeling such a contact a "friend" is not new. Mark Dykeman, in a post on Mashable, asked in September, Is a Social Media Friend Really a Friend?, asking, "Would you trust a social media friend with your money? Your home? Your significant other? Your children? Your life?"
The answer of course is not uniform. Each example listed above has a certain weight of importance, and implied risk. But even if you don't want to casually hand your keys and credit cards over to somebody you have been throwing sheep at on Facebook for two weeks doesn't mean you can't find real connections with people who will help you out.
A few examples:
- Would you invite a friend you met online to "crash" at your place for a few nights instead of finding a hotel?
- Would you refer a friend you met online to a job position you found, and introduce them as a trusted candidate?
- Would you purchase a product and ship it to an online friend in another state without getting paid up front?
- Would you pay the phone/Internet/electrical bill for an online friend who you knew was short on cash?
- Would you split a hotel room with an online friend at a conference even if you'd never met?
For example, although I had looked high and low for a Nintendo Wii Fit throughout the Bay Area, and on Amazon.com, I had no success in finding one. (See my complaining on FriendFeed) But Jesse Stay, who has been a blogger here over the last two months, and someone I got to know on multiple social networks, let me know his mother has a knack for tracking down the evasive products. Sure enough, on Halloween day, a box came to my office, containing the Wii Fit, and displaying the address of Mrs. Stay, from Massachusetts. My wife and I are now amusing ourselves in acting like we're going to use the Fit to pursue something resembling an exercise program.
In the age of PayPal, pushing money around also has become easier, assuming you have it. If you watch people's comments on Twitter and other networks closely enough, you can sense stress, or, when there are gaps, know if something has impacted their usual schedule. Sometimes, it's a money issue, and reaching out via PayPal, or making a call to the utility that's getting in their way can give them the breathing room to keep going as they were before. I'm not suggesting you start playing charity and laying out thousands of dollars, but in the time where you can lend a helping hand, we've reached the point where online acquaintances are just as deserving as those offline. And if you ask them to pay you back is of course up to you.
Similarly, way back in 2001 a friend I knew from an Apple online stock board said he wanted to fly out to see the MacWorld Expo, but he didn't have a place to stay. Having never met him, I offered my apartment for three nights, and he and I took off to see Steve Jobs in person. I also shared a room at the recent BlogWorld Expo with someone I'd never met.
Why so trusting? A few things. First, I believe people are inherently good, and I've chosen to interact with good people online, who share ideas, are trustworthy and positive to be around. Robert Scoble says "you are defined by who you follow" and if I were following people online that I wouldn't be friends with in the real world, then that is my mistake. You also, thanks to the ease of publishing and dissemination of opinion, have the option of publicly embarrassing or outing an individual who has wronged you, so the incentive to do well and act within accepted guidelines is strong.
Of course, not every friend is equal. Just because almost 2,600 people have chosen to follow my account on Twitter doesn't mean that I am going to give them cash and a place to stay. But for those who I have had many interactions with over time in multiple networks, and traded e-mail or phone calls with, I know I am building relationships that have a potential to transition to real world. That's why I know at some point, I am going to take my wife out and let Drew Olanoff babysit my twins, why I bet my kids will be having playdates with Milan Scoble and Thomas Buchheit, and why I've tried to help find new careers for many people whose blogs I read and whose work I follow. These investments I'm making now are going to be paying off, and I encourage you to take a look at your own online "friends" and see if you too can be a real-world friend to them.