Tonight, I’m going to get into a car with three people I’ve never met and drive to Wisconsin.

10 years ago…heck, 5 years ago, this would have been a ludicrous statement. It would have raised all sorts of questions, especially from my Mom.

“You’re getting in a car with WHO?”
“What do you mean you’ve never met them before?”
“You’re just going to drive to Lord-knows-where with a bunch of strangers? Are you nuts?”

Of course, the people I’m driving with are not strangers. I know them from the Internet. That in itself may seem a little nuts to some…but not me. I live online. Sure, I have friends that I see every day, in person. I DO spend a lot of time with people in the offline world. But I have a LOT of online friends too. Some I’ve had the joy of meeting in person. Others I haven’t yet, but I will be soon. Still others, I may never meet in person.

But that doesn’t make them any less my friends.

This is a new era.

When the telephone was invented, most people didn’t use it. They didn’t see the point of “calling” someone, to only hear their voice on the other end. It was far more effective to be in someone’s presence. One couldn’t possibly maintain a relationship (personal or professional) with someone only via telephone. The in-person was critical.

Nowadays, of course, we couldn’t live without telephones. The telephone connected our world. Families traveled more. Businesses expanded their reach. It was the dawn of a new era of communication.

The Web has created an entirely new era, and there are some key differences between how the Web connects us and how the telephone does. The first is the Web’s randomness (or serendipity, as I prefer to call it). In the olden days, you wouldn’t just pick up the phone and start dialing random numbers and striking up conversations with people. But on Twitter, that’s exactly what we do.

The randomness of online social tools allows us to link up with people we would otherwise never have met. I mean, before the social Web, it would have been unlikely that this Canadian TV producing girl would have ever had the chance to meet and become good friends with a pastor from Indiana, right?

The second thing about the Web that makes it different from other forms of communication is that it leaps us forward quickly. We become closer friends faster, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we get the small talk out of the way, in many cases 140 characters at a time, so when we finally meet in person, we are already past the “getting to know you” phase. We are no longer just acquaintances…we’re friends. Secondly, we get to know each other a lot better in the online world. If I read your blog and follow your tweets regularly, I will get a really good sense of who you are; the things you care about, how you interact with others, and others’ impressions of you, too. These things go a long way to help me get a sense what you’re all about, so when we meet, we already have a rapport and a dynamic.

This evening, I look forward to good food, lots of laughter, and friendly faces, as I travel the road with friends I’ve never met.