An illustration by Toby Leigh depicting online communication
© Toby Leigh

The little black book has had its share of technological transformations: from Outlook or Gmail organising our contacts to Facebook and LinkedIn, our personal networks have been digitised many times over. Yet the importance of meeting someone in person and striking up a rapport is unchanged. Dating services aside, few online social networks have succeeded in brokering new face-to-face connections offline.

That’s starting to change. The first steps were made by start-ups such as Airbnb, which mixes social networking with holiday rentals, or Nextdoor, a US site for meeting people in one’s neighbourhood. Now, for those who know specifically who they want to meet in person but do not have the human connections to do so, there is Relationship Science – a networking tool that turns the traditional social media model inside out.

Its tagline is: “Because it’s all about who you really know”, and, for an annual subscription of $3,000, RelSci offers members detailed information on two million movers and shakers in the business world, and how they are all connected to each other. First, you upload your own address book (its contents are not shared with anyone else). Then the site identifies which of your contacts are connected to whoever you are searching for. An algorithm determines the strength of that relationship – but it is up to each user how to utilise the information.

The key innovation is that rather than just being a technology, it relies on personal judgment. Neal Goldman, RelSci’s founder, decided to take the human interaction offline. He hired 800 people – more than the total staff of Facebook in its first four years – to research and create the two million profiles. The data range from which company boards they serve on to the people they’ve been photographed with. The point is to supply the icebreakers that can make the difference between a stilted meeting and a genuine connection.

We’ve all seen how, once we are in the Facebook and LinkedIn systems, our interactions are restricted by the sites’ creators: we can click Like, send a personal message, leave a comment or fill out a form to be introduced to someone. Many of us have accepted too many vague friend requests on these sites, giving a misleading impression of our real relationships. Facebook’s algorithm decides which friends’ updates appear in our newsfeeds.

Goldman describes creating his site as a “big but tractable problem”. Over two-and-a-half years, he crafted the system using his own experience of being a relationship manager and having co-founded Capital IQ, a corporate and financial information provider. He raised $60m to build it, from like-minded networkers, entrepreneurs and billionaires such as Ken Langone, founder of retailer Home Depot, and Henry Kravis, co-founder of private equity firm KKR. After launching in February, RelSci raised a further $30m this week, after signing up 150 client organisations, from hedge funds to non-profits. 

That $3,000 annual fee is expensive but Goldman insists quality information carries a premium. “We are helping a real person make a connection with another real person and the information has to be really solid,” he says. “The people who are our users have a lot to gain in the transaction they are executing.”

RelSci’s twist is how much of that transaction is left up to the people involved. There is no form to fill in or even an email or phone number provided; strikingly, this is a feature, not an omission. 

We cannot row back from the online world – nor should we want to. But we can row back from handing over control of how we go about our networking. We as individuals provide the information on a social network, so it should be up to us – not an algorithm – to determine the most appropriate and effective way to act on it.


Tim Bradshaw is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent. The Undercover Economist returns on July 6

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