When Relations Become Contextual

Niche-based friendships – we already know they exist.

I have a girlfriend who’s a total foodie. Now, she’s not particularly health conscious or loves to cook – she simply loves to know everything about restaurants, worldly cuisine, and things like deals on produce. My theory is this: the reason she’s obsessed with food is because she’s obsessed with knowledge.

She’s one of those “in the know” friends who seems to magically and simultaneously, perhaps through osmosis, port the NYTimes, Engadget, Epicurious, and Style.com into her brain daily. When we meet I quickly become caught up on most things ranging from tech gear to the latest in celebrity gossip to “why the hell has Santa Monica boulevard been under construction for over 2 years?”

I find that when it comes to social circles, she deftly finds common ground by applying her insane amount of knowledge to one thing that brings most humans together – food.

When we meet it’s always at a cool new spot. And immediately after we sit down she’ll launch into detail about everything great about the place — from the service, to the design, to price points and any check-in deals available on Foursquare. Then, the food itself arrives.

A similar and more obvious niche exists in my circle of DJ friends. Online and in real life, we mostly discuss topics around music, DJ gear, and technology.

For the most part, we all know one other or are separated by a degree or two from someone else. Because most of these folks are night owls (myself included), when we meet it’s usually after dark. I’m not sure if I’d immediately recognize anyone on the street in the middle of the day, even though I’ve known many of these folks for years and consider each and every one family.

It’s easy to forge friendships based on shared interests–particularly within a super niche like DJ’ing. And if we’re speaking with another lovely human being and find ourselves in an awkward moment of scrambling for conversation, there’s usually a common tie relating back to something along the lines of work, community, or immediate circumstance to talk about.

And if all else fails, there’s always food.

Online, we can easily find and connect with folks who share similar interests, whether it be DJ’ing, kitesurfing, or cats playing the piano. We can also connect with folks from…real life. These groups of people are composed primarily from communities at work, school, family, and from within the neighborhood.

When we connect with both kinds of groups online, it opens the floodgates to so much more information than we ever thought possible. It almost becomes overwhelming.

We’re connecting to our personal passions, pursuits and pastimes, while simultaneously fusing to the daily lives of our inner circle. Not only do we receive updates from our self-selected groups of interest, but also the continuous buzz of minutiae from school mates, neighbors, family members, colleagues, and everyone else.

This leads me to pose the question – which should come first in order of importance: the content or the context? In other words, between the stuff you love and all the stuff your tribe loves, which is more useful to your online experience? Which is more relevant to your personal growth and well-being?

Let’s think about what immediately grabs our interest. Is it the content posted by a stranger related to a personal passion point, or a piece of random content from someone with whom we share an actual friendship?

If a total stranger posts a new video about DJ’ing using Traktor (the software I use), I’d definitely watch it over a video of a Three-toed sloth crossing the road in Costa Rica posted by an artist friend I know and love dearly.

It’s crazy to think that one might actually prefer to engage with stuff posted by strangers.

Yet when it comes to our passion projects and things like doing research, solving problems, or just sharing opinions, reviews, and recommendations, sometimes a stranger will do.

This isn’t to say that these relationships are stronger than our pre-existing personal relationships. They’re just stronger than we think they are.

The incredible personal relationships we have with those in the real world make our lives whole and worth living. And it’s less likely that someone you connect with online will help out in a tough personal situation, like picking you up from the airport or bailing you out of jail.

And ultimately, without that real life connection, I wouldn’t know about the local cafe with the incredible vegan brownies. And I’d have no idea when that damn construction will be finished on Santa Monica boulevard.

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