What is it?
Once upon a time, you met people in the real world (or off-line as we now call it), got to know them and decided whether or not to become friends. Now we 'friend' or (even worse) 'unfriend' people at the click of a button, forming networks of associates online. Business, of course, has always wanted to get 'close to the customer'. So how exciting would it be if companies could truly become the friends (or 'friends') of its customers? Marketing people are excited about what social media could do for them. But this new kind of friendship may not always be as rewarding as all that.
Where did it come from?
People started getting emails from an outfit called Friendster in 2002. This was an early entrant into this techno world. Strangers could apparently become 'friends', a new and slightly unsettling suggestion. For a while Friendster led. Sadly for this business, the rise and rise of Facebook pushed Friendster into the shadows (although it still has a strong presence in Asia). Bebo and MySpace, other once-thrusting social media networks, have also fallen prey to the Facebook effect. Is there room for only one truly big player in this market? We should not speak too soon.
Where is it going?
Twitter is rapidly linking 'friends' (and followers) all around the world. The search continues to find ways to 'monetise' (another dreadful new verb) this growing and powerful phenomenon. LinkedIn is working a certain magic for professional people and job-hunters, if you use it in the right way. So we should brace ourselves for a whole new world of 'friendship', where our network of contacts grows ever more diverse and far-flung. But whether you would ever tell any of these friends a secret, ask them for advice or have them round to dinner is another set of questions altogether.
Gradient: Very steep - you need a climbing buddy (aged 16).