“The Strength of Weak Ties” means Twitter relationships are more helpful than those on Facebook

Clive Thompson applies sociologist Mark Granovetter’s famous findings regarding weak ties to a comparison of relationships on Twitter and Facebook:

In 1973, sociologist Mark Granovetter gave a name to this powerful process: “The Strength of Weak Ties.” Granovetter had spent time researching the ways in which people found new jobs. After surveying hundreds of job finders, he discovered there were three main strategies: responding to job advertisements; direct application and coldcalling; or harnessing personal contacts…

But the second finding was even more intriguing: When people got these word-of-mouth jobs, they most often came via a weak tie. Almost 28 percent of the people heard of their job from someone they saw once a year or less. Another 55.6 percent heard of their job from someone they saw “more than once a year but less than twice a week.” Only a minority were told of the job by a “strong tie,” someone whom they saw at least twice a week. To put it another way, you’re far less likely to hear about a great job opening from a close friend. You’re much more likely to learn about it from a distant colleague…

For example, Facebook’s news feed analyzes which contacts you most pay attention to and highlights their updates in your “top stories” feed, so you’re liable to hear more and more often from the same small set of people. (Worse, as I’ve discovered, it seems to drop from view the people whom you almost never check in on — which means your weakest ties gradually vanish from sight.) As Pariser suggests, we can fight homophily with self-awareness—noticing our own built-in biases, cultivating contacts that broaden our world, and using tools that are less abstruse and covert than Facebook’s hidden algorithms.

If you escape homophily, there’s another danger to ambient awareness: It can become simply too interesting and engaging. A feed full of people broadcasting clever thoughts and intriguing things to read is, like those seventeenth-century coffee shops, a scene so alluring it’s impossible to tear yourself away. Like many others, I’ve blown hours doing nothing of value (to my bank account, anyway) while careening from one serendipitous encounter to another.

Put differently, Facebook can tend to reinforce existing relationships while making it more difficult to see what is happening with your weaker acquaintances. Other platforms, like Twitter, update their feeds differently and may allow users to see what is happening with their weak ties.

Of course, this all assumes that such online relationships are often instrumental, meant to help users acquire resources of one kind or another through a network.

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