Do Talk to Strangers

The next threshold in social media is connecting you with people you don't know

With strangers like these, who needs friends?

Instead of just helping you connect online with your offline friends and acquaintances, a crop of burgeoning social media companies want to mine what they see as more useful relationships—the ones between people who might not know each other, but share a common location, interest, or friend. In a less-connected era, they would have likely remained unknown to each other. But capitalizing on digital networking—and the resulting boom in data—these companies are betting that they can turn unfamiliar people into sources of value for each other and, ultimately, for advertisers.

“As time goes on, people realize that there’s more value in the nuances and derivatives of that,” says Chris Dixon, co-founder of seed investment firm Founder Collective and founder of recommendation engine Hunch. “You start exploring things online that you can’t do offline.”

Last week, social sharing platform Meebo put research behind the theory, revealing that expert strangers trump friends when people are surfing the Web for content that matches their obsessions. The company’s study found that for information on specific hobbies or interests, 39 percent of people would seek the recommendations of strangers, compared to 28 percent who would turn to friends or acquaintances. For Meebo, a service that lets users check in to websites and follow the check-ins of others, connecting strangers around interests is about leading people to new content on the Web, and helping advertisers corral relevant consumers.

But other companies are taking different tacks. The highly funded startup Color, which has failed to gain traction despite its considerable backing, wants to create social networks on the fly by letting people in a given location share photos. The mobile app Sonar aims to uncover the “hidden” social relationships among people when they’re swigging beers at a bar or all suited up at a business conference, by using data from Facebook, Foursquare, and Twitter.

And Copious, which launched last week, brings social media into an eBay-like market. By letting buyers and sellers see how they’re connected on Facebook, the startup says it wants to raise transparency and trust.

“All this data about everyone is out there,” says Sonar founder Brett Martin. “It drives home the point that these people are like you, they’re connected to you, they have similar interests.” Just don’t take candy from them.