Start with Granovetter 1973
When Granovetter came up with his strength of weak ties theory back in 1973, the Internet wasn’t around and Internet technologies such as the semiconductor which was used to build computers were still in their early stages of development and testing.
Back then, relationships had to form face-to-face or through direct referrals that did not involve (digital) electronic methods of communication – in other words they were a little bit harder and more time-consuming to develop. But isn’t that precisely what Granovetter’s strength of weak ties theory was built on: The idea that unique information comes from weak ties (not easily accessible by ego and are generally alters and/or alters of alters) and in his particular case study, those ties were defined to be acquaintances, and that unique information was assumed to deliver value to the individual receiving it.
But take a look at your Facebook wall right this second; How many friends of friends do you receive information from – information that you were likely never to have received had you not checked your Facebook wall. Or better yet, take a quick look at twitter. In fact now you can specify what kind of unique information you’d like to find out about, and be more selective about the value you choose to absorb. What I’m trying to say here is that unique information now is so available that perhaps it is not as valuable as it used to be. Or perhaps, there’s something else in Granovetter’s model that we need to pay attention to.
Now Granovetter and others do mention that part of the mechanism that drives that value transfer from the weak tie to the central node or ego, can also include synthesis of the information. We know that in large networks those who have high betweenness centrality (brokers), tend to also do a little bit of synthesizing of the information that they receive, and then potentially exercise their judgment on whether to pass on that new information to specific groups that they are connected to. So we can make an argument that there is value in this synthesis of the information itself.
We can also argue that having so much unique information through social networks and social media contains no inherent value in the synthesis, because no one is synthesizing it for you – it’s automated. Though, I guess you could make the argument that the platform itself is doing the synthesis. For example, when recommending a new video for you to watch, YouTube tries to figure out whether its new recommendation is something that you will want to watch based on some of your past choices. It’s not synthesizing information for you, it’s synthesizing your choices for content. Semantics maybe, but I really see a big difference between the two. In any case, YouTube then is not providing you with unique information, it is providing you with (likely) redundant information because it’s providing you with videos the you have seen similar things to before!
Are weak ties really weak?
Having said that, is it really wise to characterize Granovetter’s weak ties as weak, when social media networks today provide us with an even weaker tie than his face-to-face or referral network-based ties which is actually weak because of the mechanism in which information flows and not because of the nature of the tie itself.
Another question we have to consider, is the likelihood or propensity for an actual useful referral to occur from a weak tie to an ego online.
Now we are all familiar with the concept of sharing (you know, like the share button of this post, which I think you should use IMMEDIATELY just to test it out…thanks), and in fact so is everyone. At this point it is safe to say that anyone on a social media network has shared something at some point with someone. I think the concept of sharing includes some synthesis, but I want to look at the outside of the social media networks topic for a second to compare that with “sharing”.
Let’s look at something a lot simpler like email but in the context of “sharing”. My question here is: Are alters likely to accept an ego’s request for a referral without feeling that their tie should be a strong one i.e. without being friends or family??
In other words, are alters likely to take a definitive action on behalf of an ego that is deemed (by alter) to be a weak tie? And if they will, would it be more precise to model that tie as a strong tie and not a weak one when it comes to non-automated tie types like email forwarding (contrasting with automated tie types, like being friends on a social network like Facebook).
Perhaps someone has done a study on this, but I can offer some anecdotal insight. Traditionally, I find that the majority of people I know would likely only pass on a manual request for a referral if there is depth in the relationship prior to the request being made. Depth, in this regard, can be defined as perhaps going to school together, working together, or meeting several times at a networking event(s) and knowing each other on a first name basis. If you were around at the early age of LinkedIn, when everyone did those forwarding introduction requests (people don’t do them as much anymore), I can tell you that those, being manual requests for access to a weak tie, were almost never successful in my experience (again, unless there was some depth to the relationship).
We go back to the first question, does all that mean that the way that the Internet works today is reducing or even nullifying Granovetter’s concept of what a weak tie is by changing the inherent strength of weak ties. The way I propose that social media does change the inherent strength it not by looking at relative uniqueness of information flow itself, but by looking at the mechanism at which the information transfer actually takes place: Specifically, whether synthesis exists, and whether the transfer of information is automated or manual!
If you have an answer to this, please let me know.