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