Remember when meeting a person online had a creepy factor? That started to change sometime around the millennium.
Sure we still make new friends the traditional way by maybe meeting a person at a party, or by becoming acquainted with another parent at our child’s sporting event, but for the most part socializing on the Internet has become quite commonplace.
A 2006 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project showed that almost 7 million adults in the U.S. have met and gone out with a person they met over the Internet. And remember folks, that was 2006.
Fast forward to today's Internet-driven age and meeting a person online is as normal as seeking employment online.
It's ideal for the introvert who feels more confident initiating conversation through a keyboard, and it's also perfect for those who simply want to preview their social options before committing to a face-to-face meeting.
Apps bring it home
Now a new app by the name of "City Chatter" is taking online socializing to yet another level by allowing users to connect with people right in their neighborhood, office or local hang-out, as opposed to communicating with people in far-off cities that they're less likely to meet in person.
Instead of just meeting people online from your home, the app is for those who are already in a coffee shop, bar or business conference.
Instead of walking right up to a person and introducing yourself or joining a conversation the traditional way, you can speak to others virtually through the app first. Or you can initiate a conversation for others in the location to join.
City Chatter is available on popular mobile devices including the iPhone and Androids, and its creator Phil Shpilberg says it better allows people to choose just who they want to communicate with.
"City Chatter is a local social app that combines meeting new people with group and private chat," he explained in an interview with ConsumerAffairs. "You open the app and see who is in your neighborhood bar, business conference, coffee shop, stadium or any other place. From there you can browse profiles and start a group or private conversation with those that interest you."
Shpilberg says a new generation of consumers have gotten used to receiving one's background information upon request before actually meeting them, and things aren't likely to reverse themselves anytime soon.
"I think we now have a generation of people who grew up with Google, Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn, and expect to learn about the people they interact with instantly," he said. "For them it's very natural to want to learn more about people around them. Personally, I created City Chatter because I wanted a way to meet people, and talk to them, virtually first."
Critics of virtual socializing believe it keeps people in their respective comfort zones, and disrupts the natural order of communication. Some think approaching someone face-to-face with shyness or trepidation is completely fine, and the traditional way of meeting people shouldn't be altered.
Will using an app to speak to someone just two bar stools away be the new thing? Will virtual socializing ultimately diminish the importance or need of face-to-face interaction?
"I bet Alexander Graham Bell had to answer that question just as much as Mark Zuckerberg," Shpilberg said.
"Social networking, like the telephone, is a tool for social interaction, not anti-social behavior. For example, when I travel I catch up, in person, with old friends I only keep up with because of Facebook. I don't believe tools like social networking make us introverted or extroverted. I believe they enhance our lives and make it easier to do the things we want, whether it's to talk to people more face-to-face or less," he said.
Helping, not hurting
Shpilberg also says that technology isn't hurting the traditional way of meeting people, it's actually helping it.
"I think technology is both enhancing and changing the traditional way of meeting people," he said. "For example, I regularly make contact with business people on LinkedIn and start investor relationships on Angel.co. A few years ago it was really novel to hear people meeting their partners on dating websites and now it seems the most typical way people meet."
"But these connections, if they care to be successful, always result in face-to face meetings," Shpilberg added.
“The social graph makes things even more interesting now. We trust friends of our friends more than we do strangers. Now I can find out how I am connected to most people in the world and find somebody who can make an introduction or tell me more about the person. We are quickly moving to a world where the word "stranger" is losing meaning."
But is that a good or bad thing? Because we've all of heard of many disturbing cases when people have used the anonymity of the Internet to their deceptive advantage.
The social mask that the Internet provides is often what draws people to initiate communication. But that same mask can hide the face of someone who is simply up to no good.
So how does one stay safe with the City Chatter app? Especially since those you're communicating with will be within arm's reach. I mean, don't creepy people hang out in coffee shops too?
"The same common sense applies in digital interaction as in physical ones," says Shpilberg. "Don't give out personal information to people you don't know. In City Chatter in particular you have very simple privacy controls that allow you to hide your specific location or any other profile information you don't want to share."
"Just use the simple Show/Hide toggles in the Privacy menu. The only thing we require to use the network is your first name and first initial of last name. We take safety very seriously and encourage everyone to be thoughtful of what they are sharing and aware of their surroundings, both on our network or any other one they use," he said.
Shpilberg also explains how the new app will assist those in the work world, as trying to meet your new best friend or your soul mate is only one way a social app can be used.
"City Chatter makes communication at a shared physical location like an office, conference room, or convention very simple," he noted. "You simply log on and see everyone else there. There is no need to add people to a chat, or a group text message, one by one. You can start instant conversation and collaborate as a group on your mobile phones."
"When you go to a business event, you can get an instant directory of who is there. We are going to work on partnerships that will identify location as Featured Chat Rooms, to make the kind of communication as simple as possible," he said.
The app can be downloaded for free at the iTunes App Store, as well as on Google Play. It can currently be used throughout the U.S.