Boy, am I glad that Trust Agents, by friends Chris Brogan and Julien Smith is coming out at the end of the summer.  I wish it were available tomorrow.

I was reading the New York Times this morning, and there’s a bunch of articles about Twitter including The Tweet Smell of Success-outlining how making it to Twitter’s suggested people to follow list balloons people’s followers enormously, and “Hey Just a Minute (and Why Google isn’t Twitter)“, suggesting that proper indexing may take more than instantaneous ranking, meaning Google may lag behind twitter for trending topics of importance.

Let me say this loud and clear- Popularity is not the same thing as a Trust Agent.  Being popular does not make you right.  Being popular is a one way, not a two way relationship, which is really what the Cluetrain Manifesto and the change in marketing strategies over the past few years have been all about.  While a quick look at Maslow’s Heirarchy of needs tell us that people certainly need a sense of belonging, of friendship, and self-esteem,  certain metrics like Twitter Followers or friends on Facebook are somewhat false and ephemeral versions of getting these needs met.

Humans don’t like to feel alone- we’re social creatures.  Social networks allow us to try to fill this need from a distance- we get to do it while maintaining a sense of privacy, a sense of safety in our own homes, communicating  through words or images, but less frequently, face to face.  We’re extending this by the rise of fantastic tools like Go To Meeting– where you can have virtual conferences without ever leaving the safety of your office, or experiencing the hassle or time suck of air travel.  But all these virtual tools can’t totally replace the face to face meeting, and the thrill you get from meeting someone you’ve never seen before in person.

For example, this week, I finally got to meet Liz Strauss and Shel Holtz at BlogPotomac.  Liz and Shel are well known to me through their blogs.  Shel wrote Tactical Transparency with my good friend and Podcamp NYC lead organizer, John Havens.  Liz runs an amazing conference I’d love to attend, but haven’t yet had the chance, called SOBcon, also known as Biz School for Bloggers. It was great to get to see them in person and touch base, and I wish we had had more time to talk.  But even in these few minutes, I got a sense of how much their online presences jibed with their real selves, and this face to face meeting makes these casual, online communications a bit more real and two-way.  This makes a few tentative steps to a real world friendship, especially now that I sense that the real world people and their online reputations match- they are authentic to the core.

Likewise, this upcoming weekend, I’ll be attending Podcasters Across Borders-one of the few Podcasting-centric conferences left that hasn’t become equally about social media and online tools, like Podcamp Philly’s evolution.  (This year’s will be October 3 & 4th at Temple University, but I digress.)  Meeting people in person allows you to get a sense of them that takes a lot longer online.  Like Malcolm Gladwell talked about in Blink, there’s a bit of calculus or rapid cognition your brain does that let’s you know whether someone is for real- whether you’ll be friends or not, and whether there’s a sense of intellectual chemistry present or not.   Richard Bach once said, “Your friends will know you better in the first minute you meet than your acquaintances will know you in a thousand years,” and I think we’ve all had that experience. There’s nothing that replaces a handshake, or looking into someone’s eyes, and figuring out whether they’re for real or not.  And I am much more interested in having these kind of friendships and relationships than I am with the ones from unknown followers garnered in  social networks.

Now having said this, I’ve obviously had online friendships become great ones that move into the real world, and real world friendships that are challenged by time and distance, where online communication keeps the ambient information flowing.  Facebook and Twitter have let me communicate more consistently with relatives, reconnect with school friends, and this is priceless.  The sense of connection with people I care about is enhanced greatly through social media.

But the one-sided, fandom sorts of connections, like my admiration of David Pogue and Lisa Belkin of the New York Times, I’m not fooled into thinking these are relationships.  Even while I would be happy to help either David or Lisa with promoting their books, and I would talk about them at the drop of a hat, I don’t know them, I just like their work and admire them.  This relationship is not reciprocal.  The objects of my admiration may benefit from my feelings, only as much as I am willing to talk about them and influence my friends to do the same, but I only benefit from their continued production of great content.  They broadcast, and I am just a receiver, with the option to amplify and rebroadcast if I choose to.  The signal is  one way.

This brings me to my point- the collection of followers on social networks outside of people you really know and value is just collecting a bunch of fans or groupies.  It’s fine and it can certainly boost one’s ego, but it definitely strips away some of the two-way communication and added value that happens when communication is supplemented by a real relationship.

Your “real” friends know what kind of information you want or need, and try to deliver that to you, like proxies or deputies, seeking out information and acting as your filters of the firehose of data available.  The communication is bespoke and tailored to your needs.    These are the people who will also pick you up at the airport, the ones who will feed you, the ones who will be there whether or not you are seen as important to the masses.  Like your family, they love you for who you are, not what you do.  Even if you suddenly did something awful, or your reputation was somehow tainted, your friends will be there for you, regardless, and will be the first ones to offer help or even just a shoulder to cry on- whatever you might need.  You may not always need what they offer, but the fact that they are the first to go to bat for you- that’s something money can’t buy.

We’re going to have to figure out how, in the days where anyone can amass a following through online channels, where the value chain lies.  Your reputation is now something that’s much more public than ever before.  You know who is talking about you, good and bad.  In high school,  everyone thought they wanted to know what people were saying about them behind their backs, now, for better or worse, we can all find out.  It can make us easily hurt by criticism and feel like we have to tailor messages to disgruntled members of the crowd, when we also have to acknowledge that trying to please everyone has always been the surest method to please no one, especially ourselves.

In the end, it’s the people who become our Trust Agents- the people who have repeatedly earned our trust and respect, who deliver on what’s promised and more, that will become the currency that will carry the day.  Where reputation is more fragile than ever before, subject to commentary and pot shots from any direction, the power of the real world friendships and the increase in trust forged by the old-fashioned handshake will be what lasts and makes sure your boat can withstand the toughest seas.