Casual Aquaintainces and the Power of Weak TiesI’ve been reading and stewing over the idea Mark Granovetter presented over 40 years ago. The idea/argument is that weak social ties play a more important role in building stronger social capital than your densely knit group of friends and family. So let’s dive in! Read Time: 10 minutes
What is Social Capital?It’s the thing that improves our health and general well-being. The more we have of it the more likely we are to have jobs, be paid well, have good health, and be happy. It’s what Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone calls,”the root of the economic miracle in California’s Silicon Valley.” Social capital is our ability to leverage the people we communicate with for the benefit of our shared and individual interest. Some may know this in the form of, “I scratch your back, you scratch mine.”
Strength in Weak TiesThe basic premise of Granovetter’s work is that our acquaintances play a very important part in connecting different networks to one another. Take fictional Andrew for example. Between family and friends Andrew has about 20 people in his close network, these are the people he sees on the weekend, his family and members of his extended family that he sees and talks to regularly. In addition to his circle of 20, Andrew also has about 100 people he calls his acquaintances. These are comprised of his old classmates, co-workers, and groups he’s associated with. In the digital world, these are people he’s connected to on Linkedin, his active followers on Twitter, and so on. It might seem to make sense that in some cases his family and friends are best suited to provide Andrew with quality options and choices. For the most part I believe this is true under certain circumstances, like when it comes to personal care when he is sick or when he needs seed money to start a company. But what about if he is looking for a job, or a date? When Andrew taps his network of acquaintances, and assuming he has a good amount of social capital in his network (and the economy isn’t tanking), then he is likely to be presented with more opportunities than his family and friends could provide.
“The weak tie between [Andrew] and his acquaintance, therefore, becomes a crucial bridge between the two densely knit clumps of close friends.”
- Granovetter from Sociological Theory, Volume 1 (1983)
Does this sound familiar? Malcom Gladwell brought this to the mainstreams attention in his 2006 book The Tipping Point. In his book Gladwell asserts that “connectors” play a major role in spreading new innovations. Connectors are rare, have above and beyond the normal amount of acquaintances, and are able to communicate regularly with an extraordinary amount of folks.
Implications for Social Media
Do we really value who’s in our network, or are we simply looking for numbers and “followers?” It seems as though numbers and attention is the only relationship that matters. We need a fundamental shift in how we view our content in general more importantly content from those in our network and we need to look closer at how that content builds a relationship between us as acquaintances.
To be clear when I say content, I’m referring to all of our digital signals including: any form of text messages, video, or audio communication with our network.
Chris Brogan is one of those people. In a recent post, Brogan parodies the Twitter follower craze with the omnipresent, Get More Followers TODAY! (btw- very funny!)
It may take more time for traditional marketing and PR departments to translate the new paradigm in new media. I don’t blame them though, the technology is new and they may approach it with a traditional mindset. If they haven’t already gotten it already, they will eventually because they understand the power of weak ties and the power of casual acquaintances.
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