No matter how much we open up on the web, creating new connections online can be intimidating. Just as not everyone can start a conversation with a stranger at the bar, not everyone can comfortably start conversations in social media. Luckily, there are hundreds of online services and apps popping up, trying to solve our social awkwardness and help us discover new connections in new ways. These tools allow even the introverts among us to communicate, find friends, business partners and, yes, dates.
One thing is most definite, online networks will continue to help us connect in more effective ways, collaborating with and inspiring each other. It can be as simple as connecting two “Mad Men” fans via Miso, or as large as organizing a global movement through CauseCast. The more we get used to the idea of creating new online connections and willing to try new ways to do so, the more chances we have in finding those that will turn to be meaningful.
Below, we’ve taken a look at at the five ways we connect using social media. From tags on Twitter, to locations on Foursquare, to algorithmic systems; each of these trends is helping us build meaningful relationships.
1. Connecting Via Tagging
Tags existed for many years on blogs and websites. Twitter and its hashtags redefined the way we think of “tags.” No longer add-ons to posted content, tags could actually organize and build communities. For example, during New York Fashion Week I met most of my business and personal contacts by using the hashtag, #NYFW. Although all of us attended Fashion Week before, none of us ever connected, simply because there was no easy way to connect us. Hashtags have changed that.
New York-based Hot Potato, dubbed by the Business Insider as the next Twitter, took tagging to a new level, categorizing them by interests. The app helps people connect based on categories like music, books, food, or simply what’s on their mind. The neat part about the tool is that you can not only share the activities, but create meaningful, real-time conversations around them. While the trend hasn’t spread beyond the early adopters’ crowd yet, recent rumors about Facebook acquiring Hot Potato might help bring it to the masses by integrating some of the features into the existing Facebook platform.
2. Connecting Via Niche Content Sharing
Just like with tagging, sharing actual content attracts people that are interested in what you have to say and share. These connections become especially valuable when they revolve around specific niches where communities and connections can flourish.
Foodspotting is a content sharing site for foodies where users can post photos of their favorite dishes. In the fashion space, GoTryItOn helps users connect to a global community of people willing to asses your outfit. Try on an outfit, post a picture, and the crowd will respond with (hopefully) helpful, honest advice. Another niche community, Dribbble, is great for designers looking to share and give feedback on new projects. Users can post snippets and previews of their work, comment on other projects, or even follow specific users with designs they like.
3. Connecting Via Activities
People have been using the Internet to organize offline activities since its first days, but some sites – old and new – make the experience so much easier and less intimidating, especially when you are looking for new connections.
The oldest among them, Meetup.com, has been facilitating local connections among people who share the same interests for almost a decade now. With its 250,000 meetup events happening across the globe every month, it connects more than 7 million members based on mutual interests. While it’s not the only site to offer these services, they have a friendly and effective user interface that makes the process easier.
Another New York startup that focuses on activities rather than on people doing them is the newly launched HowAboutWe, which completely redefines Dating 3.0 etiquette. People are matched based on the activities they propose for a date, rather than on their self-indulgent dating profiles. Its success only 3 months after launch is proof that there are lots of opportunities for innovative business models to be found in connecting people in new ways.
Plancast is a site that allows its users to share plans in advance. It’s been getting a great buzz among the early adopters and has some potential to change the real-time check-ins trend: Users intentionally broadcast their plans, meaning meetups are more scheduled and less happenstance. Here again, new connections can be created in advance, around events and activities, making an in-person meeting much less intimidating.
4. Connecting Via Locations
Location-based social networks have had some real buzz over the past 18 months. One reason for this trend is that our phones are finally powerful and fast enough to recognize and analyze local data. As with activities, it’s much easier to create connections when there is a common point of interest, like a neighborhood bar or favorite store. While location leaders like Foursquare don’t explicitly encourage new connections (yet), there are plenty of services that fill the void.
Yelp has been following this trend for years by creating a social network around places (mostly restaurants). With 33 million monthly unique visitors in June 2010 and more than 12 million local reviews, it’s the largest social network connecting people specifically around locations. Although the site’s major focus is user reviews, some of the “elite” members have developed a strong following of fans, and conversations are encouraged.
CitySense brings an interesting development to location networks by answering the question, “Where is everybody going right now?” The app, billed as a real-time night-life discovery and social navigation tool, is still in the process of adding more personalized options aimed at better creating those hard-to-find meaningful online relationships.
In the location dating space, one of the newest examples is meetMoi, a dating app that updates your location in real-time as you move around. At any moment, meetMoi searches for compatible matches near your actual location and sends you an alert when it finds a match. From there you have few options – wink, instant message or, if you are brave enough, meet instantly.
5. Connecting Via Algorithms
This trend combines the real potential of “Web 3.0″ by using semantic web and sophisticated algorithms to connect like-minded individuals. Hunch is the most buzzed about site, using collective decision trees to make choices based on users’ interests. Although the site has proven effective for some users, personal testing returned many incorrect assumptions on my personal taste.
Another, similarly titled, service is Lunch. It is based around recommendations and reviews by like-minded people. They even include shopping suggestions, which range from spot-on niche finds to super-obvious stereotypes like the suggestion that I might like a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes.
These automatic services still seem to be in their early stages and therefore not yet totally effective at creating real connections. As their algorithms become more sophisticated, however, they might yet redefine online discovery and help users create new meaningful connections with like-minded people.
CEO & Founder
New Media Fluent