I’ve spent the weekend reading through Trust Agents, by my friends, Chris Brogan and Julien Smith.

Trust Agents, at its heart, explains how the currency and language of the web is based on trust.  Relationships online, for business or social reasons, require that both parties trust each other immensely.  You can’t always seal every deal with a handshake over dinner anymore, and whether money changes hands or not, there’s a great deal of social capital invested between people, and they rely on the other party dealing with them fairly.

As an attorney by education and trade, I can look at the relationships people develop online as a social contract.  Each party agrees that even in the most basic “friend” relationship on social networks like Twitter or Facebook, that certain rules will be respected.  There is often a quid pro quo, where people reciprocate the friendship outreach.  Let’s break this down further-

Mary decides to join Twitter. She goes out and “follow” a bunch of people, hoping these people will reciprocate.  This “following” is like an offer of friendship or relationship, which may prove to be valuable, or it may be a burden, but just like any offer to purchase goods or interact with someone, no one has to reciprocate- it’s an offer, that’s all.  If Jim reciprocates, a relationship, however tentative, has been formed.  The offer has been accepted.  This is the basis of a basic contract, with the “consideration” that binds the contract measured in willing to spend your attention and information with Mary.  Now, if  Mary decides the ongoing trading of information and links through tweets needs to take a turn towards a constant barrage of what might be considered “spam”, she may violate this social contract, causing Jim to simply rescind the conract and unfollow her.  Jim’s opted out of Mary’s friendship, breaking their contract to connect and exchange the currency of ideas.

This social contract is the basis of online relationships.  Basic friendship relationships on social networks have led to many real world opportunities for me, ranging from personal tours of Barcelona, to speaking engagements, to meeting Richard Simmons and beyond.  There is a real store of value being built up in these social relationships that can be leveraged and translated into actual dollars and cents, and this is a large part of what Julien and Chris discuss in Trust Agents.

The point of being a Trust Agent is, of course, not to take advantage of all your friends and seeing them as walking wallets and opportunities.  Being a Trust Agent requires that you have built a network of relationships, just like the guy with a great rolodex, long before you actually need it.  As Chris Penn says, you need to bring the awesome all the time, and the the relationship currency will follow.  Then, when someone is looking for a consultant, someone to hire, a speaker- you will automatically be the first person on the list, or at least on the list of people to consider, where those who do not help others and deliver value will long be forgotten.

This is a bit of a blue ocean, bread on the water strategy.  It requires you to save -delivering value and building relationships, long before you get to spend- getting hired, or even asking some one to do a favor for you.  The more value you have stored in these relationships, the “closer” your relationships, the more durable that bond is, just like any real world relationship.

If you want to better understand the concept of how relationships work online, and how you can become a Trust Agent yourself, run out and get a copy of Trust Agents.  It’s going to be a classic guide to help people negotiate this world of online relationships, while helping you to understand the culture, and how you can leverage these relationships for success, just like Chris and Julien have done so well.