My business partner, Barrie Bramley, has come up with a fantastic phrase to describe one of the foundational principles of social networking: “Relationship without investment“.

I think he’s spot on with this. That’s why the Oxford Dictionary voted “unfriend” the word of the year for 2009. It’s easy now to become someone’s “friend” (I have over 3,000 such “friends” on Facebook and about 1,000 “followers” on Twitter). But there are no requirements for this friendship. Engage if you want to, don’t if you don’t. And if you don’t like the group you’re currently in, just start a new one, and find those people who share your precise, niche likes or dislikes.

I do not share the concerns of those people who say this is destroying community and relationships. Of course, it has the potential to. Anti-social people can be truly and fully disconnected from the “real” world. But then, they are anti-social people anyway. People who think their Facebook friends are real friends need to wake up – it takes more than just watching someone’s status updates to build a relationship with them. But surely that’s obvious to everyone.

Social networking technologies are simply that: technologies. Technically that means that they are “enablers” (there isn’t a universally accepted definition of “technology” by the way, but most agree that it defines something that enables or provides a solution to a problem). What I mean by this is that they can be used to create community and to destroy community or relationships. The choice is ours.

If a boss chooses to use text messages to inform staff they’ve been fired, can you blame the technology, or is it just a horrid boss? If someone twitters constantly, telling the world what they’re having for breakfast and where they are all the time, is that a problem with the technology, or just an egotist who finally found a stage? Relationship without investment has a negative aspect to it. But it also has significant positive potential, and I believe it is this that will dominate our usage and acceptance of social media in the next decade.

A great example of “relationship without investment” is online dating – or more accurately: online match making software. It makes a lot of sense to me. I tell them everything about me, and I expect the clever people behind the system to match me up with a potential soul mate. Based on millions of other people’s experiences, I can get matched with someone who (statistically at least) is a perfect match for me. I get a relationship without investment. And it works!! In fact, it works better than investing in friendships that don’t lead to relationships!

Statistics on online dating are difficut to find. Most of the available stats come from online dating websites, which make bold claims for their industry (as they would). Some suggest that as many as a third of marriages in the USA last year started with an online match making. I can believe that – but suspect it is a bit exaggerated. The stigma of online match making is rapidly fading, though, as people realise the potential.

Sure, you need to find ways to make sure people don’t lie about themselves, or post the wrong picture. But, in reality, this is happening less and less. If your ultimate goal is to find a real relationship, then starting it with a lie just doesn’t work. There also have to be ways to deal with the “predators”, and physical security when meeting someone “for real” is still a concern. But these are small issues that are easily dealt with, and I predict that software driven match making will be a huge feature of lives in the future.

The key to “relationship without investment” is not that you can actually have a relationship without any investment. Rather it is that you can find the people with whom you want to have a relationship with minimal wasted effort. And that must be a good thing for everyone – personally and professionally.

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