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IRL: What Happens When Online Goes Offline?

Remember the story of the “stolen sidekick” in the first chapter of Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody? It was impossible to read about Sean Power and the stolen Macbook without recalling Shirky’s Sidekick anecdote.

If you have not heard the story about Sean Power, here is the short version. His laptop was stolen this week, but thanks to anti-theft software, he is able to track the new owner’s activity and identity and share the information on Twitter. Hundreds of people followed Sean’s story, many of whom had never met Sean. Finally, Sean moved in to recover his laptop and agreed to meet with Nick Reese:

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They successfully recover the laptop without any altercations. 

Strangers helping strangers, right? Not exactly. 

Nick’s account makes clear that he was only aware of Sean Power’s stolen laptop when a friend called it to his attention on Twitter. Does this undermine Nick’s efforts or the efforts of others who helped Sean? Not exactly, but let’s be honest. Nick learned of Sean’s ordeal through a mutual friend on Twitter, and it is hard to consider the two “strangers”. Their online relationship facilitated an offline relationship.

For most of us familiar with Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn, It takes less than 60 seconds to determine if two people share friends – an overlap with others I trust, and I am more likely to trust you. If we do not share friends, it is easy to skim your profile and updates to determine if you are who you claim to be online. Cross reference the information with a Google search, and I can find the equivalent of what others sold as a “background check” 10 years ago. I am not suggesting that strangers do not help strangers, but that today it is easier to use online activity to improve and facilitate offline engagement. Sean Power’s story is one of many anecdotes to support that online engagement is changing the definition of strangers and facilitating offline activity, or what I unscientifically call in real life (“IRL”) activity. 

What is IRL activity? It is everything that does NOT happen online. It is nothing new – before the internet, IRL activity was the primary focus of human interaction. Coffee with friends, family dinners, and, yes, helping someone recover a stolen laptop all count. What is new is that we are using technology to help us select or opt into IRL activity. Sean Power tweeted about his stolen laptop, leading to IRL activity and the recovery of his laptop. Literally hundreds of private and public IRL encounters are filtered and optimized as technology helps determine who, why, when and where. Consider how Foursquare, Gowalla, Hashable, LinkedIn and even hashtags for events take the uncertainty out of extending online relationships IRL. Online dating has become a multi-million dollar industry simply by minimizing this uncertainty.

What happens after Nick Reese helps Sean Power recover his laptop? We only know the answer because so many people documented the story. What happens when online goes offline? Is this the social graph’s holy grail? When technology allows us to marry online activity with offline activity, we will have a better sense of the implications of facilitating the shift from online relationships to IRL relationships. Until then, these stories are the only evidence we have to suggest that optimizing IRL activity is a good thing. I suspect we will see more efforts to explore where online data and offline data overlap. The lines have only begun to blur…It all started with a stolen Sidekick…

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