When it comes to connecting and relationships, bringing up “in-person” versus “social media” triggers opinions and passions and fears and stories and, sometimes, the digging-in of heels. For a moment, however, take a step back from personal preference.

What follows is an analysis of offline and online relationship in terms of timing. In so doing we should both better understand where our own preference fits in the bigger world, and we’ll also better understand the paradigm from which someone else is operating.

Offline -> offline

In networking we think of getting to know someone and either

  • connecting them to someone we know or
  • connecting to someone new through them.

In historical terms, this was all in-person. In human terms, “networking” was the intersection of communities or neighborhoods or circles of influence. In practical terms, we’d be idiots to throw this baby out with the bathwater of other options.

Offline -> online

Even prior to the web being an integral tool, these connections became technologically enabled with postal/mail systems, then telephones, then even email. Ironically, we tend not to think of mail or email as technology…we’re still just curating relationship.

In historical terms, the next step then tends to start with a tonality that sounds like, “I only connect with people on LinkedIn that I’ve actually met and know.” In human terms, this sense of technological disintermediation starts to seem less familiar (read: comfortable) when the connection is less familiar, when the thread of “knowing” in the relationship is thinner.

In practical terms, this may well be the best time-leverage you’ve got for maintaining a connection with someone who you can’t (or won’t) otherwise invest much in-person time with. At the lowest level, you’ve got a way to reach out to them that stays intact even if they change phone numbers or employers…arguably superior to needing to maintain your little black book or contact manager. As you grow, though, you also discover that you can, with less time, “keep an eye” on them, what they share, and who they know. Finally and powerfully, you find that they can keep the same eye on you (assuming you care to leverage this opportunity to teach and lead).

Online -> offline

One significant trend online is that organizations like Google shifting the emphasis of “authority” from brands (e.g., Forbes) to individuals (e.g., Steve Forbes). While this assessment is a bit simplistic (brands still count), it gives us a lot to think about as we’re swept into a new world.

In historical terms, starting a relationship online has been roughly represented by a salesperson searching and sorting through LinkedIn contacts to give her an idea of who to pick up the phone and call. Later, connections started online for the same reasons as they start offline (e.g., perceived mutual interest, et al).

In human terms, though, this more quickly blurred between using those connections to precipitate an offline conversation and simply leaving the relationship online…watching and listening. If they connected with us, we’re the ones needing to make a decision whether or not to reciprocate.

Online -> online

In this context, “social media” quickly devolve into just “media.” Marketers will be the first to argue that a “conversation with the marketplace” is a powerful part of authentic brand (and I’d not disagree), but a critical distinction is that this viewpoint always stems from a perspective of scale. In other words, these interactions are designed to lead to other actions (you like, subscribe, or buy) which only may sometime later involve human-to-human interaction.

The human perspective is thus revealed as one of time and intent.

You and I can find each other, hang out in the same digital neighborhoods, watch what each other is doing, and decide if and how we want to approach each other. Maybe I happen to be on the same street corner you are (so to speak) when you say something and I choose to respond.

Which brings us around full-circle.

The bottom line

All the content and conversation that underpin relationship is limited by a finite clock, so the depth of any given relationship is a function of what portion of your finite resource you want to allocate to getting, staying, and feeling connected.

As I’ve said in the past, those who value the depth may be missing scale, and those who value scale may be missing depth.

If our pre-existing values unconsciously shape where we begin in our own journey’s starting place, it is in the raising of our own consciousness that we raise the possibility of reconciling the two.

The world will be better off for your effort.