The conversations and people I have met through podcasting, social media channels like Twitter and events like Podcamp in its various forms and incarnations have changed my life. It’s not just that I have made great friends who I never would have met otherwise, but these relationships have extended beyond the virtual and into real life.

The best and most recent example is getting a chance to hang around with Chris Pinchen (a.k.a. Cataspanglish on Twitter) in Barcelona. Chris is a british ex-pat living near Barcelona with his wife and son, and is involved with organizing Podcamp Barcelona, InnovaCamp and other social media/new media projects, in an area where this stuff is still pretty new and cutting edge. Chris and I had chatted frequently on twitter; besides our common interest in Podcamp, it turns out Chris was interested in what I had to say on my podcast about learning and learning disabilities, so we had a lot to talk about besides geekery.

My husband and I got a chance to meet and hang out with Chris when we got to Barcelona. We got a great walking tour of the old city, complete with stops at local places for cava and tapas. I felt like we got to see Barcelona as a real place, not just a tourist town, and got a chance to know Chris better in the process- something that wouldn’t have happened without connection through social media. Chris has become a closer friend, and on a more superficial level, Barcelona is more than a postcard for us – it’s now a place we would readily return and spend more time.

I’ve got many of these sort of stories, as do my friends.  Social media has provide not only travel advice, but I’ve gotten more rapid responses to customer service problems, answers to questions, as well as helping people connect for business and personal reasons.  The ability to send out a question to you network and get a rapid response is what makes things like Twitter fascinating.  You can build up a network that acts as your own personal focus group and tool box, all rolled into one.

The usefulness of these hand-forged, bespoke connections is why services that offer you up “a thousand twitter followers for $12.95” or “Get an army of followers” quick sell schemes seem totally pointless to me.  While I am mystified on some levels why I have as many followers as I do, they have selected me, and decided to engage (or not) with me on twittter on their own terms.  Unlike the ‘bot followers, this is not artificial popularity, and the numbers themselves mean very little.  What matters is that I have a network that helps me get things done, whether at home or abroad.  They are very real people, who, when asked, provide information that is truly helpful.

And the trick to all of this, of course, is never to abuse your friendships, to ask more than they can deliver, and also to contribute back where you can.  There’s a quid pro quo in social relationships that we need to honor, even if it’s sometimes a public thank you to a really great and generous person like Chris Pinchen.  Thanks again, Chris, for making our trip to Barcelona something really special, and for helping make my husband a believer that this social media thing really works.