The phrase "In Real Life", once used regularly to articulate the gap between online and offline activity, is ceasing to have any relevance. Online communication is increasingly becoming a large part of 'real life' relationships, which has some interesting effects that we're just beginning to see.
Social interaction on the Internet isn't as new as seems to be implied by all the Web 2.0 talk. From pre-Internet dial-in Bulletin Boards, to Usenet, IRC, IM and online forums, the Net has always had a large interactive component. This interactivity played a large part in the rate of growth of Internet usage, despite some people seeming to think that the early adopters were spending all their time online reading static web pages.
The communities that evolved early on were often heavily topic focused which encouraged a somewhat isolationist mentality to evolve, where a person would bring a slightly or significantly different persona to each community. And most importantly, that persona was most likely quite different to who they were in the real world.
For someone used to this world, at first it's quite hard to understand something like Facebook because the idea of using a web app to manage real life relationships is completely foreign. Although genuine friendships were developed online, it was rare (and more than a little strange) to find out that someone behind an avatar was someone you knew in real life.
The real revolution of new online social media is that it bridges the gap between online and offline personas, largely because it is focused on relationships rather than topics. In part as a consequence it has vaslty increased the number of people who use the Internet for social communication, which has some interesting consequences.
When you follow or become friends with someone from work you're exposed to a lot more information about them (and they you) than would normally be shared. Subjects that are usually taboo like religion, politics and sexual orientation usually form a large part of people's lives and by cutting them out of our work personas we're denying ourselves the opportunity to make genuine connections. And the small stuff like tastes in music, TV, food, movies etc add a more human dimension to the relationship.
This is a confronting idea for a lot of people as the separation of professional and personal is drilled into us from early on. But by even slightly reducing this barrier we get to more greatly appeciate the people we work with, which usually leads to a strengthening of the working relationship.
Purely online relationships
Because we're sharing more of ourselves in our online lives, the online-only relationships that are built through Twitter have a much more human, and hence genuine, feel to them than those developed in forums or IRC. This can allow you to grow your social circle quite quickly.
The sheer volume of information on a lot of social networking sites, particularly Twitter, force a change how you consume information. It's not possible to keep on top of everything, rather you treat it like a conversation: when you're not there, you're not part of it. The volume also makes you particularly sensitive to what's valuable and what's not, and to adjust your community membership accordingly, and rather ruthlessly.
Unintentionally this attitude can flow out to the rest of your life, online and off. Things like rarely monitored RSS feeds and inefficient meetings become much more troublesome, and are dropped much more readily. It's strangely relieving to accept that a lot of things will pass you by.
Most social media sites are designed around a flat peer hierarchy, where all users are for the most part equal. This is of course is stark contrast to the culture of many organisations and society in general. It's quite common for people to talk directly to senior politicians on Twitter, with both the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader posting and, particularly in the case of Malcolm Turnbull, repling to comments. It's a similar case with many other high profile people - the usual social bourndaries are largely removed.
Over the last decade the Internet has undoubtebly changed the way we view the world in terms of information, and it seems set to have a similar impact of how we relate to one another. I'm hopeful that some of the traditional social barriers will begin to be weakened over time, allowing us to connect to people as people, rather than as collegues, resources, or the unreachable elite.