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Is the Internet Nightmare for Social Life? Possibilities for Real Connections Are Emerging

The Internet may seem like a 21st-century nightmare version of the worst excesses of the marketplace. But it's also creating new possibilities for connection and conversation.

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Ironically, a short 15 years ago, when a 28-year-old computer scientist named Pierre Omidyar created "AuctionWeb," a software program that enabled people to buy and sell over the Internet, few believed that strangers would trust each other enough to exchange money online. But Omidyar "founded the company on the notion that people were basically good, and that if you give them the benefit of the doubt, you're rarely disappointed." His goal was to create "an honest, open environment," which, he believed, would "bring out the best in people."

You probably know the company as eBay. Omidyar built it, and we came. "It would have seemed like a crazy idea even a few years ago," says Rachel Botsman, a branding expert and coauthor, with Roo Rogers, of What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborate Consumption, "yet 99 percent of the trades on eBay happen successfully. Technology enabled trust between strangers."

True enough, we're less afraid to talk to strangers online. We (mostly) use our real names when we display images or twitter our opinions and our favorite links. In return, we get a glimpse of other people's lives. Deanna Zandt, author of Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking, thinks of social networking as the "digital version of consciousness raising" because each tweet or status update says, "This is what it's like to be a person in my shoes." We help and are given help, we share and snack on morsels of information or inspiration. These brief encounters are surprisingly satisfying—and compelling. Being a participant is rewarding, like winning in Las Vegas—you want to go back for more.

Seriously, those of you on Facebook, admit it: it's not like spending a week at a soup kitchen, but when you say a kind word, wish happy birthday, or even "poke" someone just to say hi, don't you feel like a good citizen of Our Town? It puts a high gloss on your self-image. You see yourself as someone who cares about, and cooperates, with others.

Arguably, a new ethos of collaboration has quietly crept into organizations and individual practices. For example, consultant Nancy White, coauthor with Etienne Wenger and John D. Smith, of Digital Habitats, describes her work with clients as "co-learning." When an individual or organization comes to her for advice about using social media to collaborate and create community, she doesn't position herself as "the expert." She shares her experience and contacts, but there's a great deal of trial and error, and if an idea fails, she and the client take stock as a team. She stresses that "it's not that the tools themselves inspire trust and collaboration. We use them as a medium to connect, and thus generate trust and enthusiasm." White has seen this play out in her own life. "Having a public identity as a businesswoman means that people can learn a lot about me before they even contact me, because I blog and have an online presence. As a result, I tend to have long-term relationships with my clients—and almost 100 percent of the time, good relationships."

"It's all about relationships," agrees branding expert Botsman. "The sharing behaviors of sites like Flickr and Twitter are becoming second nature, and are being applied to offline areas of our everyday lives." We're hungry for community, she adds, and are redefining "what a friend and neighbor mean." As a result, we're seeing the rise of Internet-driven connections in the marketplace—a phenomenon she calls "collaborative consumption." After "decades of hyper-consumption," we're beginning to question the environmental and economic wisdom of ending up with the most toys.