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Strangers on the Web

The Web isn't a communications medium, much less a mall with shorter lines. It is (among other things) a new type of public. Nowhere is this clearer than in how it's re-writing the rules about strangers.

This is no small thing since the question of how to treat strangers is co-existent with civilization itself: Abraham and Sarah were marked as worthy because they welcomed strangers - who turned out to be angels - into their tent, and Odysseus's tale is fundamentally that of a stranger pinballing among various flavors of hospitality...only to return home to confront the very archetype of abusive guests.

Off the Web, the rule is not to trust strangers until they prove themselves trustworthy (and thus are not fully strangers any more). We teach our children that quite explicitly. And we react to a phone call from a stranger by assuming that it's going to be a pitch to get us to change our long distance carrier or to donate to the Society for Abandoned Marsupials. In fact, the telephone is primarily a medium for communicating with people we already know. But the Web is much more than that precisely because it is where we meet new people. It's a new world of strangers. That's what makes it so damn exciting.

And that's what changes the rules. On the Web, you have to trust strangers or else you're stuck talking with the same old people. Of course, there's less risk in going down a conversational dark alley with a Web stranger than going down a literal dark alley with a real world stranger. But that just means that the Web is freeing us from our fear of others. Trusting you, a stranger, to do what is right means granting you your freedom; it is the opposite of attempting to control your actions through fear, intimidation or Management By Objectives.

When we are freed to be who we are, we are given the opportunity to be authentic. Authenticity in fact means nothing more or less than being who you are. Authentic people embrace their own freedom, trust and value others, and usually have a sense of humor because it's one of the ways to live in our flawed, fallible, unmanageable world without it breaking your heart.

Those virtues - trust, freedom, authenticity and humor - characterize the Web. Increasingly, they are becoming the values of business as well. But they are not always aligned with Management, for if we embrace strangers in order to learn, to expand, to build the networks that sustain our business, then we are necesarily embracing a world we cannot manage. What looks like a distraction turns out to be essential to our work. Building alliances only among our friends turns out to be contrary to the open-armed embrace of the strangers we can't wait to meet. Our business model is turned inside out. And not a moment too soon.

David Weinberger is editor of The Journal of Hyperlinked Organizations.

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