One of the best side effects of my recent contact management overhaul was the discovery of Gist. Gist is essentially the mutant offspring of CRM (customer relationship management) and RSS aggregation/social media monitoring. It’s one of those tools you never thought to look for, but once you discover, can’t live without.

Essentially, Gist rounds up all the online information you have on each person or company in your rolodex, and presents it to you in one handy web page. Of course, to do this nicely, Gist needs to know who you know, so you’ll want to begin by connecting Gist to your Gmail, Twitter, Facebook and/or LinkedIn profiles. Yes, that is a HELL of a lot of information to share with one company, but in this case, you’ll find that Gist offers a lot more useful information if you give it a high degree of access.

Here’s why: your profiles tell Gist who you know. But if you use Gmail the way I use Gmail (for email, calendaring and document sharing) Gist becomes infinitely more powerful. Based on my e-mail, it knows who I’m in touch with the most, and assigns an adjustable “importance” to the people I contact the most. The latest tweets and posts from these people automatically show up on my dashboard when I log in:

Gist dashboard

Gist dashboard

But it gets better. Gist uses my calendar to figure out who I’m meeting with this week. My dashboard can show me the latest on the people I’m seeing — and lets me click through to the profile Gist creates. So let’s imagine that I’m meeting with one Rob Cottingham, and I want to know what he’s up to before we meet: I just visit his profile page on Gist.

At first it looks like any other CRM: contact information,  a notes field, and (circled in red) a summary of our latest e-mail correspondence:

Gist contact

Gist contact profile

Gist also shows me a summary of the Google docs we share and the attachments we’ve exchanged by e-mail. I can even see the contacts we have in common:

Gist social media profile

Gist social media profile

Gist flips the social network model on its head, allowing us to put individuals back at the center. Most of us now flit from network to network. We experience Twitter or Facebook as a community (or more accurately, a collection of people), in which our various friends and acquaintances sporadically pop up like sitcom neighbors. (“Hey, it’s Tom! Hello, Tom!”) That made some sense when were were participating in small affinity groups — in which seeing the community as a whole allowed us to feel like we were part of something larger than ourselves.

But now it’s easy to lose sight of the people that matter to you. If there are a dozen people whose tweets and updates and photos and emails you REALLY want to see, you’re likely to miss them amongst the deluge of data from people you marginally know or actively dislike.

Gist can help put the people you care about back at the center of your online experience. You can look at the profiles of the dozen people who are most “important” (and I urge you to recalibrate Gist’s assessment of who is important, or you’ll only read about your boss and office mates) and see the full context of your conversations with them, and what they’re sharing and posting about online.

Best of all, this information is targeted not so much at generating more online conversation, but at enriching your next face-to-face meeting. You can sit down for that monthly lunch with an old colleague, and you’ll know to jump in by asking her about that conference she just tweeted about.

If you’re feeling creeped out by the idea that Gist can pull all this information together, simply based on your existing social network contacts, this probably isn’t the tool for you. Because it is all a bit Big Brother: the single, all-knowing application that turns all the bits of data you’ve scattered across the social web, and turns them into a coherent (and remarkably insightful) profile of each person you know.

But of course, that’s what makes it so supremely useful. All Gist is doing is pointing out the trade-off that most of us are already making, albeit often inefficiently and unconsciously. We’re generating context so that more people know more about what we are doing and thinking. We’re building networks so we can know more about the people who intersect with our personal and professional lives. And we’re giving up our privacy and anonymity in favour of context and connection.

By doing such a good job of providing the context that, at its best, enables deeper connection, Gist may find itself in the uncanny valley of social media. Just like the robots that is too human for our comfort, but not so human that we forget it’s a robot, Gist is savvy enough to be disconcerting, but not smooth enough to be invisible. You still have to hook Gist up to all your networks before it can make sense of your social graph. You still have to visit to view your colleagues’ and friends’ profiles.

For those of us who can tolerate that glimpse into just how transparent we are through our lives online, visits to are a peek around the next corner: the one where everyone knows your full online profile the moment you give them a call, send them an e-mail or even walk into view. As uncomfortable as that future may sound, Gist reminds us of the up side: with all that context comes the possibility for quicker and even deeper connection.

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