One Part Facebook, Another Part Flesh: Relationships Beyond the Avatar

There we were in Berlin. We’d been in the city for less than five hours and I was hovering over two frying pans cooking scores of Swedish meatballs. As people poured into a party thrown by the owner of the apartment we were renting, the question echoed: “Now, how did you end up here again?”

How do you do what you do? How do you find an awesome short-term apartment in Berlin?

The answer in this case: One-part Facebook, another part flesh.

Anti-Facebook Poster in Mitte, Berlin
Facebook street art in Berlin

Both were necessary, neither was sufficient.

Social Network Schizophrenia

We have a conflicted relationship with social networking tools like Facebook. Love-hate, you might say.

The good: Facebook makes it easier for us to connect with friends and acquaintances, including ones we’ve just met on the road. It allows us to take information in and send it back out to large groups of relevant people.

The not so good: Facebook gets under our skin. Facebook’s absurdity (Farmville, anyone?) is beyond the scope of this piece. Suffice it to say that it’s not lost on me. It may be one of the greatest time-wasting vacuums known to upright man.

But, we continue to use it. On balance, we find there’s value in Facebook and other social media tools.

And, it’s not just about finding a great apartment in Berlin. The broader story is about the genuinely good people we’ve met and the breadcrumb trail of in-person meetings that build trust, the true foundation of social networks.

Face-to-Face, Then Facebook

So how did we get this apartment in Berlin anyway?

In New York City a couple of years ago, we met a Mexico City-based American travel writer who’d previously connected with us on Twitter. She put us in touch with an American writer based in Santiago, Chile. While we were visiting Santiago, she introduced us to a Bonn-based American journalist who happened to be in town the same weekend. We connected with him on Facebook.

Two months later, we put a call out on Facebook (and everywhere, really) for short-term apartments in Berlin.

Facebook

The Bonn-based American journalist put us in touch with his friends in Berlin who knew a Swedish guy living across town hoping to sublet his apartment for two months while he was away in China.

Cliches abound: friend of a friend, small world, the value of networks.

But it was the face to face interactions that greased the social media wheels of this transaction with a little added something: trust.

But how?

Of course you can “get to know” someone online. We’ve connected with and helped people we’ve never met in person; they, in turn, have helped us. But we are human beings: despite the technology available to us, face-to-face meetings carry greater meaning, however marginal, than virtual-only encounters.

When we see the avatar on Facebook (or Twitter, or –fill in the blank with your favorite social networking tool) we don’t have to imagine the person behind the icon. We know who that person is already and we can recall our experiences together.

We obviously “click” with many people we’ve only interacted with online (I’d like to meet many more of these people in person one day). But handshakes serve to confirm: “This guy’s in my tribe.” This person’s words, their recommendations, carry greater weight.

In our case, our friend in Bonn met us and could more confidently vouch for us when putting us in touch with his friend. Likewise, we placed greater trust in the whole apartment transaction because his word – the word of someone we’d actually met — lay in between.

Beyond the Avatar: Why Is It Meaningful?

Social networking enables connections and dissemination of information in ways and at speeds we could never have imagined possible 10-15 years ago. This is powerful. And as technology rolls out and evolves, we’ll be able to do more once-unbelievable things with individuals and groups halfway around the world.

And trust will be built.

But until we humans lose our human-ness, we will long for the face-to-face encounter.

So we’ve got a sweet apartment in Berlin, and social media was the bridge.

But it’s the people we met in person that helped us walk it.

—–

Afterthought: Malcolm Gladwell’s recent article in the New Yorker questions the potential of discussions on social media platforms to translate into real social change. If my reading of his piece is correct, he argues that the link is not very strong. As Gladwell suggests, we’re more likely to get involved in a cause if we know someone personally affected by it.

In other words, social media helps to circulate information to large groups of people, but social movements and social changes are still determined, at least in part, by off-the-grid forces.

Looks like it’s time to get off Facebook and go shake some hands.

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Comments

  1. says

    Yup. I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook too. I love it for it’s ability to keep me updated and in contact with people who would have otherwise fallen out of my life. I hate it for it’s invasion of privacy and for changing settings without forewarning and the lame games as you mentioned. Sometimes, facebook causes a bit of drama too.

    Anyways, I’m happy to hear about your experience in finding a place in Berlin. What comes around goes around. I’ve often helped out people who I know won’t be able to return the favor because I know in the future maybe someone would do the same for me. It’s not about getting something in return though, I just really like to help people out when I can and it makes me feel good.

  2. says

    Hey guys! I’m definitely with you on the facebook front – the quizes, the invites to groups, photos of other peoples’ kids – I usually last a few seconds on facebook then log out with a shudder and head on over to twitter. I’ve also met totally awesome e-friends in real life, although I don’t feel the same need to meet someone in person in order to feel like I can fully trust them. However, I’ve largely met these people through my blog and have gotten to know them and kept in touch with them via twitter. I’ve found facebook great for catching up with old friends but that’s it. I’m curious as to how you’ve met new people on facebook as I’m not sure how that would work?

    Cheers,

    Michael

  3. says

    I am unabashedly a huge fan of maintaining travel friendships on Facebook. I don’t really meet new people through it, but it’s an invaluable way to keep in touch with people I meet on the road. With email or letters or even calling, it’s easy to start strong and then fade off. With Facebook, when regular contact fades, you can still be aware of what people are up to, and it’s not as awkward to start the connection up again when you want to. After meeting people face-to-face when traveling, I’ve been able to see a good number of people again after my trips by staying in touch on FB. One travel friend even notified me through FB that she was inviting me to her foreign wedding. As far as quizzes, Farmville and other ridiculous stuff like that, it’s pretty easy to block it out and never see it in your news feed!

  4. says

    While I do place value on meeting people face to face, I’m not sure this would exactly fit into gaming world of avatars.

    I met some of my best friends on World of Warcraft and vouched for each other many a time with real world situations. While it may have taken a few years to meet, it was like meeting an old friend during that first initial hug.

    I guess I’m an internet romantic. I have faith that I’m able to see people beyond the avatar,

  5. says

    I think we’re all trying to figure out what to do with Social Media–how to use it without feeling like it’s abusing us back. I have never played any of the games or taken any quizzes because I really don’t care what color sneakers I would be and even less about playing Farmville & Mafia Wars (don’t even know what they’re about truthfully), but we CAN use Social Media intelligently… Your example is clearly proof of that!
    Re Malcom Gladwell- is it NECESSARY to change the world thru Social Media? And thinking about it- I’d say it probably IS changing the world- we have more contact with more people at different levels and more places than ever before and are therefore more likely to be affected in some sense by what affects them. We can respond and engage them in conversation. Can’t do that with a newspaper. Letters to the editor are just not the same as hitting the comment button!
    Yet once again… you guys are leaving me with food for thought!
    Thanks & Cariños from Chile.

  6. says

    I think that relationships destined to only exist in the digital domain will never compete with human interactions. That said, I agree with the premise you’ve laid out in this post, that social media is a kind of fertilizer in which relationships push through the topsoil, reach out, and blossom.

    Having met you guys via social media and blogs, I can say that it won’t feel complete until I meet you in person. Thank goodness for social media, though, for without it I may not have interacted with you or countless others I surely someday will.

  7. says

    Facebook is a great way to stay in touch with people and I’ve used it for friends of friends stuff. But at the end of the day, it’s no substitute for real life connections.

  8. says

    Hello Audrey and Daniel!

    I agree. Face-to-face is still the best. On-line is fun and I’ve met some wonderful people. It’s more like a part-time human experience. You need to be around folks to get the full-time adventure. That’s why I’m involved with various groups in my town and nearby towns. Good for the soul.

    thx, Giulietta

  9. says

    It’s a fine line to tread. So many of the people I spend time with live on the other side of the world. Some I’ve met in person. Others I haven’t, but would like to.

    Much of my work is online. Most of my contacts are online. I have friends in NY, Atlanta, Buffalo, Buenos Aires, all over Panama and Costa RIca and so many other places. Facebook and Couchsurfing keep me in touch with them. I’m also able to introduce one to the other.

    I feel maintaining those relationships are as important as many of the real life ones, but it is easy to slip into the online world and forget online interaction cannot entirely replace real life. And I find when I allow myself to sink into the online world for too long, I lose touch with reality in a way that is not healthy. Like everything else, one needs to find balance. I try to get out of the house and do real life things with real people every day.

    Still, my real life interaction would be far more bland without my online world. One example from just this week. I returned from Burning Man wanting to learn how to spin fire, specifically staff and poi, so of course, I turned to the internet for resources and to see if I could find people nearby. Then, I passed by our guest bedroom to see our latest couchsurfers spinning poi there. I pulled out my own poi, and they gave me a lesson.

  10. says

    I think everyone has a love/hate relationship with FB, but well the love definitely, at least for me, is so much stronger than the hate I just ignore the hate. Sooo awesome you found a flat!

  11. says

    I agree with Keith, social media can be a bridge towards person-to-person interaction. Without SM my scope of travel and who’s doing it would be very limited, but it’s really the personal relationships that cement experiences.

    I came across a situation recently where a complete stranger, an online person had an effect on me… your post retooled my focus on a confusing SM experience.

    You still need people to build a bridge, walk across it, and bring it to life. I appreciate SM for what it can do, but still prefer a human dimension overall.

  12. says

    This past week has been an incredible one for me as I’ve met and spent time with a handful of people who I had only met through SM and blogging. What I did notice is that just before the initial handshake, or just before the hug, there was always a moment of comfort that generally does not exist when meeting a stranger for the first time. It’s as if SM helped eliminate any awkwardness… as even though I didn’t know these people well, our online connection gave us a comfortable foundation to build upon. Our face to face meetings just felt right and it seemed as if we had been friends for years already.

  13. says

    Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful comments about this issue. Apologies for the delayed response – we’ve been in Italy for our 10th anniversary and haven’t been checking the internet is often. I’m sure you understand :)

    @Jenny: It seems like everyone I know has a similar relationship with Facebook. Perhaps the trick is to block certain things from a stream to try and weed out the annoying games and such.

    Like you, I do try and “pay it forward” and believe that if you treat others like you want to be treated then good will come to everyone.

    @Michael: I think there are different levels of trust that come with the progression of online relationships. There are some people that I’ve met through our blog and social media who I feel I know very well and almost forget that I haven’t met them in person. Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but when it comes to trusting someone with your flat (and all your personal possessions) or recommending someone for an important project, it helps that the person has been met in person – there’s a confirmation or gut feeling that comes from an in-person meeting.

    I didn’t mean that we meet new people through Facebook (actually, I rarely “friend” people I’ve never met in person), but that we use it to keep up with new people we’ve met on the road. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

    @Ekua: I completely agree. Facebook is fantastic for keeping up with people we meet on the road as it’s easy to fall out of touch with email or skype. But, with Facebook it’s easy to just pick up whenever you want. Have fun at the wedding!

    @Erica: I have to admit that I am clueless about the gaming world and how those relationships develop. Like you, when we have finally met people we got to know online it is almost like seeing an old friend again. There have been a few situations where the in-life person was a bit different from the online person – for better and worse – but usually the online and real life person are similar. But, after that meeting the relationship is usually a bit more in depth (at least for me) since I can associate the online avatar with our time together.

    @Margaret: Each time we bash social media, I have to remind myself of its potential – not only in situations like this (and we have several such great examples), but in spreading word about worthwhile issues. For example, I believe that Twitter helped spread the word about donating to the earthquake in Haiti through your mobile phone, which raised millions of dollars.

    I believe Malcolm Gladwell’s point is that while social media can help spread the word of something, those who actually go out on the streets are still going to be the people invested with a personal risk or have a friend who is affected. That said, with online and offline worlds becoming closer, perhaps that distinction will decline over time. I know that I’m more willing to pay attention to the articles/causes tweeted by certain people I’ve “known” online for a while, which is one step closer to feeling personally involved. Lots of food for thought! The trick is to try and focus on the potential of these tools instead of the silly games that sometimes get the attention.

    @Keith: So true. This is why conferences have not gone out of fashion in this day of social media and virtual connections – you can’t replace face-to-face interactions.

    Social media allows you to connect with people throughout the world based on mutual interests – the potential for this is incredible. And, there are online contacts that are more like “friends” than others – like you. I do hope our paths cross sometime during our travels!

    @Nomadic Matt: Couldn’t agree more! It’s great to connect with people online and then be able to put a real person to the online voice/avatar.

    @Giuletta: It’s great that you are involved with local community activities as a balance to online interactions. I find that when I spend too much time online with social media and website stuff, I start to feel like I’m not grounded – I need interactions with real people to feel fulfilled.

    @Leigh: Like you, much of my world is online and our connections are all around the world. These online connections certainly enrich our lives and provides us with friends all over the world. But, like you, I need balance with real life people and being involved locally.

    There are some people (like you) who I was connected with online through Twitter, Facebook & our blogs that I almost forgot that we hadn’t met in person. But, I’m so glad we did have a chance to meet since it’s like going from a regular movie to 3-D -the relationship is a bit fuller and more complex.

    @Andi: As with any tool, Facebook is all about how you choose to use it. It’s up to us to block out the stuff that ignores us and set boundaries.

    @Nomadic Chick: Nicely put. Yes, social media allows us to connect with people we would have never had access to or even known of before. But, it’s the time together in person that really make an experience or relationship.

    @Earl: Very true. I find the same thing when we meet people who we have had a long online relationship through our website/Twitter/Facebook. It’s like seeing an old friend instead of meeting a new person. And then you can jump right into meaty conversations instead of starting with the “getting to know you” conversations that come with meeting strangers. There are people who I thought I knew from online interactions and then I met them in person and they are even more awesome than I had imagined. And each time I see their avatar pop up now, I think about that.

  14. says

    “Greatest time-wasting vacuums .” Love it! Feel the same way about Farmville.

    Also love how using social media well can link and ultimately bring us together. I use Facebook to keep up with family and friends across the globe. After all, besides my husband, I have no immediate family in Sweden, and social media can help bridge that gap.

    Twitter can also be a time-wasting vacuum if not used with caution.

    Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece for the National Association of Black Journalists about where to draw the line with social media – http://nabjdigital.wordpress.com/2010/09/22/the-thin-social-media-line/ – which basically asks questions about when is social media too much.

    Great post guys!

  15. says

    @Lola: Social media does have great potential and an amazing way of keeping people in touch with one another – we’re the same way in that we don’t have immediate family around us most of the time. But boundaries are necessary to not let it take over your time. Now that social media is maturing a bit, I’m noticing this topic – how to draw the line with social media – is coming up more and more. Thanks for sharing your article and thoughts on this!

  16. says

    I think Facebook is heading the way Myspace has. The key seems to be to keep things simple as opposed to spamming people with games. Twitter seems to be the new social network of choice, and is far less intrusive. Lets hope they keep it that way!

  17. says

    @Becky: I agree with you that simple is better and I also hope Twitter keeps its current model without adding games and annoying features. I do think that Facebook still has a long life though – there’s something still quite addictive about it. Perhaps we’re all a bit voyeuristic?

  18. says

    Much can be made about the decline of human interaction because of the Internet and social media sites, but bottom line, it’s up to the people using it to decide how they will use it. On one hand, sure, for some people there is a loss of the human element as they choose to only interact online. But for many others the connectivity that the Internet provides is a big accelerant to real-life relationships. I have met countless people in real life because of the Internet. You can foster relationships online, it’s just a faster way to “mail a letter.”

    I just moved to a new town and I’ve already made plenty of real-life friendships because of Couchsurfing. One thing that fascinates me about meeting people for the first time in real life that I’ve only met online is the instant connection/bond, like we’ve known each other a long time. It’s just comfortable.

    Great post guys.

  19. says

    @Carlos: Before we moved to Prague in 2001, we networked online with a group of expats via email. I think about how that process would be much more streamlined with the social media tools we have today. Social media tools do make it much easier to connect with many people and provides an avenue to eventually meet them in person (provided you’re in the same geographic place).

    I’m with you that when you meet someone in person that you’ve originally “met” online there is that instant connection. With me, I find that the relationship becomes closer or deeper after this face-to-face meeting. Not sure if this is just my personal quirk or if most people feel the same.

    There has been some discussion in the travel world about social media being the death of real exploration and travel. The idea is that travelers are spending more time online chatting with their friends back home than out exploring the places they are visiting. Again, I think it’s all about how social media is used by the traveler. They can be great for sharing travel experiences and information to inspire others to travel. However, it can also limit your time out exploring and interacting with the local environment.

    And on that note, I’m going to sign off now and go explore a bit :)

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