When I stepped off the Airporter bus at Grand Central Station and took a picture of the terminal’s iconic facade, I had a specific friend in mind. Debra Roth (@pinkdeb), who I’ve known since 2009, is always posting images of New York buildings on Instagram. The following day, when I finally met her for the first time at PlannerTech, I told her all about it.

In fact, there were several people at PlannerTech with whom I’ve been talking and working for years, who I met for the first time in real life at the event, including @lizkingevents, @camerontoth and @eventsforgood. Being able to put voices and bodies to their avatars was tremendously fulfilling.

How many friendships do you have that are virtual? Does it strike you as strange that these online connections are becoming more a part of the social fabric of our lives?

I know when I first joined Twitter in 2009 and started following and engaging with people, I didn’t expect to forge any kind of meaningful connections. Then I attended the annual Society of American Travel Writers convention in Houston and made an off-hand comment to a PR person that all of her CVB’s sales people were following me. By the time I got back to the office, that CVB had purchased a digital marketing program with Plan Your Meetings. In an elevator, on the way to the opening reception for the Sustainable Meetings Conference in Pittsburgh, an attendee asked if I was @PYMLive, and we ended up becoming friends for life. Twitter allowed me to find writers, speaking engagements and free technology to enhance my educational presentations. And friends, lots and lots of friends.

Does it seem weird that I can get to know and trust people I’ve never met face-to-face? Yes. But think about this: Since the dawn of time, people have used storytelling as a means of educating, informing and getting to know each other. Digital media like Twitter, Instagram, Vine, G+ and Facebook are making it easier to tell and swap stories with people who live far outside our typical spheres of influence. Social networks are the cocktail parties of the 21st century. Just like our grandparents swapped exploits over cocktails, we’re now sharing those experiences digitally. The bonds we form, the tribes we join online are tentative, but no less real than the temporary relationships we form on job sites or at conferences. And they can only be enriched by continued support, communication and, yes, face-to-face meetings.

And it’s not just people in the business community who are benefitting from this web of all things. Did you know that kids in high school are now “dating” people they may only know from playing video games or Facebook? My son is 16 and last Valentine’s Day, we dropped him off for his first date with a girl he’d been “seeing” for three months. When I asked him why he met all his girlfriends online first, he responded, “What am I supposed to do: Go hang out at the mall?” Having been a teenage mallrat in my youth I had to agree. Cruising the mall just tells you about what someone looks like and acts like in public. Social networks are where people share more insights about their thoughts and beliefs.

At PlannerTech, Dino Dogan (@dinodogan) shared a provocative thought: Marketers typically get all wrapped up in counting brand likes, clicks and shares — the engagement other people are having with us. Why don’t we measure success in the number of ways we’ve supported and given back to our community of fans and supporters?

So what is the ROI of social media? I really think it has to do with the relationships you forge. But more importantly, it’s about the way you nurture and develop them.

What benefits have you received from your online friends? Have the communities you’ve engaged made an impact on how you’ve done business? Let me know by tweeting @PYMLive or commenting below.