Strong versus weak connections

I missed the Malcolm Gladwell conversation at F5 Expo in Vancouver last week, however, there has been a lot of buzz about the ideas presented. Christopher Holt summarizes Gladwell’s talk:

Fidel and Che didn’t use Facebook to change their world. They didn’t even have fax machines. They built strong trust ties, not loose networks like those that most people have with their Twitter  buddies.

So here’s the idea about social media — it’s a load of tripe that ain’t gonna change nothin’. You want to change the world? You need to spend time, build strong networks based on reputation and authenticity, and develop very close trusting relationships

Basically he’s saying that in order to change the world you need to build strong networks based on reputation, authenticity and trust. And strong networks are not built online. That social network connections tend to be of the weak variety, i.e., easily broken because of the lack of trust and reputation. This is counter to the evidence presented by Veenhof, Wellman, Ouell and Hogan [PDF], who suggest that social media tools are transforming relations with family, with friends, with community relations.

“Rather, research is showing that the Internet is fostering participation with community members and in social organizations. To a great extent, this is basically an enhancement of existing relationships— people now have other media to connect them.”

The data from Veenhof et al. supports the separation of strong and weak connections, however, social media (Internet usage) augments and supports existing relationships. What is missing are the tools for establishing trust, reputation, and authenticity online. The majority of the data continues to support existing familia and friendship relationships as strong ties.

What are strong versus weak connections?

Social network analysis often partitions one’s contacts with other people into strong ties and weak ties. While there is no precise boundary, strong ties generally provide one or more of the following: intimate social support (measured as those with whom one “discusses important matters”), help in times of need, or regular and intentional social contact (that is to say, they actively seek each other out regularly, rather than ‘bump into each other’). Weak ties are those individuals who are socially close to a person, but not close enough to fulfil those criteria (Boase et al. 2006).

How do you critically evaluate the reputation of others online? Is it their academic or corporate pedigree? Is it the number of followers? Is it through personal connection? What about as the number of levels of degrees of separation increase in your social graph? You know who your friends are and presumably you trust them, do you trust their friends?

Who are the people that you actively seek out?

Trust like knowledge is an emergent property

I think that Stowe Bowd has captured my biggest concern about trust management:

Stowe Boyd, Craig Newmark on Trust

Trust — like knowledge — is an emergent property of social networks, an attribute of social relationships. That I trust a friend and that friend trusts me is a construct of emotions and thoughts, based on interactions over time, and the result of past experiences…Attempts in the past to suggest that knowledge can be managed as an asset have largely been fruitless. I predict the same will be true of trust and reputation. And not just because it can be gamed, or that it is highly contextual, but because it won’t connect with our minds well, and how we think and feel about trust.

And this is consistent with Gladwell’s comments at F5 Expo and the work from Veenhof et al, that strong connections are incredibly well supported by digital communication tools. I keep wondering if there is an opportunity to build a trustworthiness score, something like a credit score. However, the ability of the financial industry to operationalize a measure of the riskiness of a consumer is probably much more easily accepted than other industries to accept a computed trust measure.

Additional Reading

12 thoughts on “Strong versus weak connections”

  1. I left a comment, that in essence says, weak ties reinforce strong ones. The Internet helps us maintain connections, but must also include f2f meetings to forge truly strong ties.

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  2. (I wasn't at the show)

    I can understand how Gladwell was trying to be contrarian and explain to people that this online stuff isn't all it's cracked up to be.


    I think the big thing he glossed over is how the weak ties of online interactions can reinforce / keep alive weak ties. You and I meet face to face perhaps once or twice a year, but have some sense of “voice” and interaction through precisely these weak ties.

  3. I would agree, Gladwell seem miss the benefits of online social connections. The Veenhof paper talks about how social media and the internet have improved connectivity for remote relationships, examples include new immigrants staying connected to friends and family abroad, rural residents connecting with each other.

  4. Strong ties take a lot of work and investment and, by definition, you can't actively maintain a large number of them. Social networking can help cultivate and maintain the next best thing (weak ties). Social networking is a great way to find and be found by the best people to develop those strong ties with. Most people find their next career opportunities not through their strong ties but through the weak ones. It's the weak ties that have enough reach and that enable that first contact to be made.

    If you don't have a wide weak tie network, your pool of who to form strong ties with could be pretty small. You may never find those right best strong ties you'll need to change the world.

    Also, you don't always need to be changing the world. For example, at the moment, you could be not actually trying to change the world, you are just trying to buy a used toaster. In such a case, the trust proxy of an eBay reputation ranking may well be crude, but also “good enough” for the particular task at hand.

    eBay built a multi-billion dollar business on a reputation system that was “good enough” to enable safe enough commerce (most of the time) between total strangers across the internet.

  5. I disagree slightly…Malcolm doesn't miss the benefits of online social connectivity for education or for ideas propagation, but did deflate the concept that somehow these loose connections were able to be used to significantly change the world in a revolutionary action. Revolutions are not spontaneous, but take a lot of groundwork through trusted ties. It was funny at the F5 conference because many in the room wanted to here how they could make $$$ through social media and he began his critique with the Cuban revolution…so much irony there it was quite funny.
    Hey thanks for referencing my post too David.

  6. I don't know if ebay's rep system had much to do with its success, but it IS debatable. In fact the relationships you grow directly without computers intervening between the people require much less work to make stable, and once they are established, they continue to exist even if you don't have contact for a long time. They self-sustain and continue on their own.

    That's NOT going to happen with social media as a norm. Most of the relationships are context bound. Just like your work friends. When you leave a job, you will likely lose some “friends' you thought you had. False relationships that seem powerful until you change the context.

    This is really important. And technology hasn't changed it. I make a lot of money from websites and all my books were offered to me from people who initially met me online, BUT, none of it, not a single client has been happy paying me without talking to me on the phone, or in person.

    Mediated relationships are different. It's that simple.

  7. This echos part of what I've been saying (and getting lambasted for pillar to post) for a year or so. The notion of digital relationships as being the same as “real” ones in terms of their influence is nonsense. When you introduce a medium or technology as a means of mediating communication, the medium affects the message so profoundly.

    I think there are a lot of psychological reasons why people WANT to believe this isn't so — a discomfort with real people, flat out business motives…

    It's a bit scary that people believe relationships are relationships regardless of medium.

  8. David, look at your own life as a whole piece. Who do you trust? Does 10 bad comments by anonymous Twitterites (who could be anyone, really) outweigh the opinion of a face-2-face friend who you know well?

    I don't think so. But that's just part of the point.The information that you see on Social Media tend to be that which is most popular, but popular doesn't make it true. Sometimes I think there are two kinds of people: One group who believes if a bunch of people say something it must be true, and a second group that wants evidence and accuracy, and are not swayed by popularity.

    The latter better win out.

    When you don't know the sources, motivations, or even WHO people are or their motives, how can you possibly evaluate their suggestions, ideas and critiques?

  9. Quick comment on the rep systems. The reason it worked if it did on Ebay was because of the tie to money tracking which required a record of who the person is/was because of the financial transactions.

    Initially amazon had a system where anyone could review books, and in fact the problem was that it wasn't uncommon for vendettas to be executived by anonymous people or posers. I know several authors, actually quite well know in their fields who had their sales trashed by such attempts.

    So, amazon solved it. Now, you can't review or comment unless you have made a verified purchase from amazon, because that makes you trackable as a reviewer.

    None of that is currently possible in social media. Without that verification, everyone IS anonymous.

  10. Hey David you are correct. The issue of finding some mechanism that will develop a solid trust link seems improbable as it's a quality of human interaction that seems to depend upon familial ties and the eye to eye and handshake bonding of human beings.

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