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What makes a weak tie?

by Sam Ladner on December 29, 2010 · 2 comments

in Blog, Popular, anthropology, culture, facebook, home, management, organizations, personas, social media, social networks

Social media today can take some wisdom from past research into social networks. Mark Granovetter’s famous sociological study of how people hear about job opportunities found that “weak ties” to friends and acquaintances are actually more beneficial than “strong ties” to family and close friends. Social media marketers need to consider who has weak ties and strong ties before designing a social media strategy.

The Individual and The Network: Courtesy of Wikipedia

Weak ties are a product of social and psychological factors. Whether you’re designing an interaction, an experience, a marketing campaign or even an organizational itself, you should know what makes a “weak tie.” Weak ties are the source of precious information, like who’s hiring someone with your exact qualifications, where you can get the best deal on tires, or how good that new movie really is. Weak ties are the source of influence marketing, organizational innovation, and economic growth. In short, weak ties are the ties that matter.

What kind of person develops many weak ties? In his famous study, Granovetter did not measure certain psychological or sociological variables to determine if there was a systematic difference between those with weak ties and those with strong ties. But there are reasons to believe that there is such a systematic difference.

I come from a small town full of people with thick, strong ties have held that community together for generations. Originally a prosperous West Coast Salish Community, Sechelt continues to be archetypical of strong ties. There is economic development there, yet there is little innovation, dynamism or rapid change that occurs in cities.

I came to Toronto, where I knew exactly two people, both of whom were “weak ties” or friends I had known from school. Granovetter’s analysis would show that these were exactly the right kinds of people to help me find economic opportunities. And indeed, he was right; one friend graciously opened her home to me as I started my new job in this new city. 13 years later, I still live in this city (minus a two-year sojourn back home for my Master’s degree and to rack up even more weak ties), and here I am.

I now run this research company by developing and honing my weak ties. Weak ties have brought Copernicus new colleagues, new business, and new ideas. I have many weak ties throughout the city and the continent. What kind of person am I? What are the missing variables from Granovetter’s study?

  • I am well educated, with four degrees and armloads of weak ties from each university experience. Did this help me develop a wide social network?
  • I have cultural capital, having been trained which fork to use and when by my etiquette conscious mother. Did this help me develop a *quality* social network?
  • I am an extrovert, who is comfortable meeting strangers and talking to acquaintances. Did this pre-ordain me to have many weak ties?
  • I am a woman, who has been trained to consider social events part of my “gender job.” Does this encourage me to develop weak ties?
  • I am white, and have been given white privileges like walking into office buildings, record shops, and convenience stores with nary a blink from a security guard. Has this helped me make new weak ties?

Sociologically speaking, weak ties are likely the result of a combination of social structures like race, gender, and social class. Psychologically speaking, weak ties are likely the result of constitutional personality traits, such as neuroticism or introversion/extroversion. Using both lenses, one can see that social capital is not built without a context; people are born into a personality, a body, and a social location which may — or may not — encourage the development of weak ties.

When you are designing a social media strategy, consider these social and psychological factors. Interaction designers would do well to gather insight around these variables specifically when doing design research, and incorporating them into their personas. Organization designers and HR consultants should consider that innovation does not happen simply because of “social media,” but because of specific social and psychological factors. And marketers should never believe that “if you build it, they will come.” Marketers should instead believe “if you build it, some of these specific types of people will come” to social media applications and campaigns.

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Categories: Blog · Popular · anthropology · culture · facebook · home · management · organizations · personas · social media · social networks

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Chris Avore January 4, 2011 at 11:28 am

Love the summary on strong & weak ties, particularly how it relates to corporate social strategy.

I’d add that there’s some importance to contextualizing weak ties. I’ve observed people using social network platforms become bewildered or suspicious when they find they’re connected to what appear to be strangers. At least some sites, such as LinkedIn, reference how many degrees away a person is from another, or if two people share a group or other similarities.

Hopefully more social platforms will continue researching (and ultimately developing) functionality capable of providing useful access to weak ties based on a person’s background, activity, or role in the organization/structure.


2 Sam Ladner January 4, 2011 at 1:53 pm

That’s an interesting comment, Chris. It makes me think of what it means when the social graph is suddenly visible. Like, for example, maybe Clark Gable wouldn’t have been impressed if Kevin Bacon was in his larger actors’ network, but he wouldn’t have known that he was until the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game emerged. When it did, he may have realized it for the first time.

Likewise, these people were always in your wider LinkedIn network, but you simply did not know it, nor did anyone else (at least directly). Now it’s laid bare, for all to see. That’s an interesting transformation!


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