Strong and weak ties: Why your weak ties matter

imageStrong and weak ties are both relevant and important in your social networking interactions. They perform different functions in relationships but they can extend your network far beyond your normal reach.  Using and maintaining your socially weak ties can bring far-reaching benefits outside of your normal relationships. 

Think how you use LinkedIn for example.  Are all of your relationships “strong ties?”  Do you count all of your connections as good friends?  Or are they colleagues who you occasionally interact with?  Are they important to you at all?  Should they be?

Are your Facebook relationships all strong ties, or do you stick to Dunbars number theory?  You’ll probably find several sets of weak ties in your social networks once you start to look.  Do you connect with them?  Do you watch their activity feeds?  Do they look at your feeds to keep in touch?

Mark Granovetter refers to your strong ties as your friends and your weak ties as your acquaintances in his paper “Notes on the strength of weak ties”  Mark talks about the interpersonal relationships between different, disparate groups of people  and how they hold different sections of society together.  As humans, we can have both strong and weak tie relationships in our normal networks.  We can multiplex these relationships.  We are weak ties to some of our connections and strong ties to others.  Just like a network multiplexer our weak ties can carry both types of signals around our network.

In social networking these ties are crucial.  Think about strong and weak ties in the following way:

A strong tie is someone who you know well. You’ve probably got their number on your phone.  You interact with them on social networking sites. There is good 2 way conversation, and even if you don’t know everything about them, you know them pretty well and information flows freely.  We know the same information. 

  • Think about a group of geeks talking about technology.  They all follow the same news streams and all know what’s going on in the technology world.

A weak tie is a more tenuous relationship.  Once a year, you may  send them a Christmas message promising to be in touch more often.  If you look up their number, they are surprised to hear from you. You have different interests and don’t interact much.  You might have kept their business card in case it comes in handy one day. 

  • Think about a couple of your friends who understand technology but you wouldn’t class them as geeks.  Whilst they are on the edges of your circle of influence – they don’t follow the technology news as much as you do.  They have interests in other areas and aren’t as up to date technology wise.

However, these weak ties are crucial in binding groups of strong ties together.  They bring circles of networks into contact with each other, strengthening relationships and forming new bonds between existing relationship circles.

 as Mark says:

The weak tie between Ego <sic> and his acquaintance, therefore,becomes not merely a trivial acquaintance tie but rather a crucial bridge between the two densely knit clumps of close friends

These friends might have information that is mutually beneficial to each other, but more importantly, these ties encourage sharing of information across different groups.

Lets say I lived in a socially cohesive group consisting almost entirely of red wine drinkers. (Actually that could be true!). I would never get any information from the coffee drinkers at the edges of my network, as I only communicated with the red wine drinkers.  I might miss the new brand of red wine flavoured coffee that would add to the range of red wine I drink.  Focusing entirely on red wine means I’d miss the opportunity enjoyed by all of my coffee drinking weak ties. You get the idea..

I might miss other opportunities too.  Back to Mark:

…individuals with few weak ties will be deprived of information from distant parts of the social system and will be confined to the provincial news and views of their close friends. This deprivation will not only insulate them from the latest ideas and fashions but may put them in a disadvantaged position…

Weak ties might bring you the crucial information about a new job opportunity, a new start up business or new connections into other areas of your peripheral business.  Your relationship with your weak ties should be maintained and cultivated, knitting your networks together to encourage information free flow between the different parts of your networks.  This information flow could be information you need to get ahead in your own work, or it might be recommendations and information about your skills and abilities to get you the job / contract / opportunity you’ve been looking for.

Perhaps its time to get in touch with some of your long forgotten acquaintances and see what information you’ve been missing…

Image credit: flickr

Eileen Brown is a social media consultant and author of Working The Crowd: Social Media Marketing for Business.

Contact her to find out how she can help your business extend its reach.