The more people you know the better for you. The more you share the better for you. 500+ million people on facebook with an average of 130 friends each. 6,939 tweets per second on Jan 1, 2011. Why are we doing this? What are we getting out of it?
Jessica Hagy put the answer into a nice graph under the heading “This is what web 2.0 means.”
It is ingenious in its simplicity. Posted a while ago you can still find it on her wonderful blog.
It captured the imagination and the criticism of quite a crowd. Many explained once more that the number of people you know is not what counts. After all, you cannot have in-depth relationships with indefinite numbers of people, the ever increasing time spent on maintaining relationships leads to getting nothing done at all, “aggregate quality” is more more important than quantity etc.
So was the graph just another example for the unfounded optimism of a net enthusiast? Is it not true that knowing more people means that you can do more things? This is the basic premise behind the graph: the more “people you know” the more “things you can do”. Is it true or should we stop adding friends on facebook, stop going to conferences and never ever again talk to strangers?
There is actually a scientific foundation for what Jessica Hagy captured in such convincing simplicity. It takes some wind out of the sails of the unbelievers. The “Strength of Weak Ties” theory was first put forward by Marc S. Granovetter in 1973 – way before the internet was even thought of. He claimed that weak ties – relationships with people we have very little interaction with – are actually very important connections. They help us to find jobs, provide access to important knowledge and trigger innovations (Granovetter, 1983). In his study for his Harvard doctoral thesis he found that 24% of interviewed blue collar workers found their jobs through acquaintances they only saw once a year or less. Many of these ties had been forgotten by the individuals and were only reactivated through chance encounters or joined friends.
Sounds familiar? Ever stumbled across a tweet that made you research a bit more and got you thinking differently? Ever reacted to that reminder from facebook to “reconnect” with a friend?
According to Granovetter the reason for the positive impact of weak ties lies in the fact that they act as bridges to distant social networks. The information circulating in these networks would be otherwise inaccessible. Weak ties provide the person with non-redundant information. This includes but is by no means limited to just in time information about job offers.
Later research supported the positive impact of weak ties. As an example Daniel Z. Levin and Rob Cross (2004) found that weak ties contributed positively to project outcomes (efficiency and effectiveness) by providing useful information. In addition, they found that a similar – and at first glance bigger – impact of strong ties is actually mediated by trust. This means that only trusted strong ties had a positive effect. On the other hand, for weak ties the effect was additative – trusted weak ties yielded the most useful knowledge.
What does this all mean? Subscribe to my blog, follow me on Twitter and connect with me on LinkedIn. I might just be that weak tie getting you your next job or nudging you into the right direction closer to your million dollar invention. 🙂
Having more (virtual) acquaintances – more weak ties – means you will have access to more opportunities. You can do more because they provide you with windows into worlds and knowledge that you would otherwise have no access to. You do not need to spend evermore time on maintaining the relationships – trustbuilding interactions once a year might be enough. And you might want to unfriend and stop following people who you do not trust anyway. Their updates might be truly just a distractions with no use for you.
Granovetter, M. S. (1973) ‘The Strength of Weak Ties’, American Journal of Sociology, vol. 78, issue 6, May, pp. 1360-1380.
Granovetter, M. S. (1983) ‘The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited’, Sociological Theory, vol. 1, pp. 201-233.
Levin, D. Z. and Cross, R. (2004) ‘The Strength of Weak Ties You Can Trust: The Mediating Effect of Trust in Effective Knowledge Transfer’, Management Science, vol. 50, no. 11, November, pp. 1477-1490.