There's something peculiar about online communities: they often have nothing to do with offline communities. There is frequently no effort on the part of online community builders to give their members the means of connecting offline. This is both odd and expected. It's odd because basically everyone is online these days, so why wouldn't you bring existing friendships with you when you join an online community? And it's expected because of the history of online community: back in the MUD days, they were (more or less) explicitly conceived as a refuge from the "real world": they were designed to be communities that would treat their members better than the rude, superficial, and cruel world that they inhabited during their offline hours.
It may be understandable why developers set out to build communities that are self-contained destinations, but increasingly this is an unsustainable position. TechCrunch weighs in on the latest example of this: Facebook and MySpace creating iPhone versions of their software that do not include location awareness:
The fact that this behavior is understandable does not make it a good business decision. When I was just out of college, it was OK to think of online and offline as two distinct worlds. I did meet up with online friends in real life, but that tended not to go so well and I didn't do it often. That attitude is increasingly meaningless today, especially among teenagers and young adults. They don't go online just to meet new people, they go online to meet with the same people they already hang out with offline, and your community is just one more communications mechanism for them. If you only allow them to communicate along certain approved lines, they will find somewhere else to hang out. And, judging by the frenzy that has accompanied the release of location-aware iPhone applications, one thing that people today definitely want to do is use the internet to connect in real life with their friends.
In short, online community needs to foster offline community, and vice versa. That capability needs to be in there, even if a few lawyers lose sleep over it. No doubt you will not be able to ignore their concerns entirely, though, so prepare for that battle. Put in safeguards that warn your members about the risks of releasing personal information. Include an informational page advising them how to stay safe online (you can't make them read it, but having it there is a show of good faith). Don't try to block your members from disclosing personal information via your site, but make very sure that you don't disclose that information yourself. And, just to be safe, get someone high in your company to buy into your community plan before you run it past the lawyers. If (when) they object, you'll need friends in high places.
If you can get the plan off the ground, the idea is a very powerful one. Online friendships should absolutely foster and enhance offline friendships; that's what a strong, vibrant community should do. A company that's afraid of the community that it builds should not be in the web community business.