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.
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.
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.
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.