The Chinese activist and journalist Xiao Qiang and I started using the term “bridging” to describe the work bloggers were doing in translating and contextualizing ideas from one culture into another. Shortly afterward, the Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan gave a memorable talk at the Berkman Center as part of the Global Voices inaugural meeting. Hossein explained that, in 2004, blogs in Iran acted as windows, bridges, and cafés, offering opportunities to catch a glimpse of another life, to make a connection to another person, or to convene and converse in a public space. I’ve been using the term “bridgeblogger” ever since for people building connections between different cultures by means of online media, and “bridge figures” to describe people engaged in the larger process of cultural translation, brokering connections and building understanding between people from different nations.
To understand what’s going on in another part of the world often requires a guide. The best guides have a deep understanding of both the culture they’re encountering and the culture they’re rooted in. This understanding usually comes from living for long periods in close contact with different cultures. Sometimes this is a function of physical relocation—an African student who pursues higher education in Europe, an American Peace Corps volunteer who settles into life in Niger semipermanently. It can also be a function of the job you do. A professional tour guide who spends her days leading travelers through Dogon country may end up knowing more about the peculiarities of American and Australian culture than a Malian who lives in New York City or Sydney but interacts primarily with fellow immigrants…
Merely being bicultural isn’t sufficient to qualify you as a bridge figure. Motivation matters as well. Bridge figures care passionately about one of their cultures and want to celebrate it to a wide audience. One of the profound surprises for me in working on Global Voices has been discovering that many of our community members are motivated not by a sense of postnationalist, hand-holding “Kumbaya”-singing, small-world globalism but by a form of nationalism. Behind their work on Global Voices often lies a passion for explaining their home cultures to the people they’re now living and working with. As with Erik’s celebration of Kenyan engineering creativity, and Rosenthal’s passion for the complexity and beauty of South African music, the best bridge figures are not just interpreters but also advocates for the creative richness of other cultures…
It’s not simply the number of acquaintances that represent power, as Gladwell posits. It’s also their quality as bridges between different social networks. Lots of friends who have access to the same information and opportunities are less helpful than a few friends who can connect you to people and ideas outside your ordinary orbit.
Without trying to be too pessimistic about the Internet and social media, it has tended to reproduce existing kinds of social relationships: limited public spaces, domination by corporations (particularly the nascent tech industry), creating echo chambers where people only find the content and people who agree with them, and not always having the open and fair-minded dialogue that might help bring people together. Yet, I’d be curious to know if there are workable and effective solutions to creating lasting online bridging ties. In my own social media use, I rely on a number of Facebook friends who consistently discuss or post regarding topics further from my own personal orbit.
But a recent Thomson Reuters analysis predicts five leading contenders for the top honour in economics this year: Philippe M. Aghion and Peter W. Howitt for their contributions to growth theory, William J. Baumol and Israel M. Kirzner for their study of entrepreneurship, and Mark S. Granovetter for his pioneering research in economic sociology.
The first four names are well known in economics while the fifth is not actually an economist. Granovetter is a sociologist but his research appears to be the most interesting among that of the five contenders listed by Reuters. The caveat here is that the Reuters list is merely indicative, based on a quantitative analysis of the number of citations of each scholar in the discipline. The Nobel committee is unlikely to be influenced by quantitative metrics alone though the Reuters analysis claims that most scholars it has identified have eventually ended up winning the Prize…
There are earlier precedents when the Nobel committee has chosen persons outside economics departments for the prize, although a sociologist has never won it till date. The political scientist Elinor Ostrom, who shared the Nobel in 2009 with Williamson, is the most recent example. Ostrom challenged conventional wisdom by showing that common property resources can be managed successfully by user associations.
But a recent Thomson Reuters analysis predicts five leading contenders for the top honour in economics this year: Philippe M. Aghion and Peter W. Howitt for their contributions to growth theory, William J. Baumol and Israel M. Kirzner for their study of entrepreneurship, and Mark S. Granovetter for his pioneering research in economic sociology. The first four names are well known in economics while the fifth is not actually an economist. Granovetter is a sociologist but his research appears to be the most interesting among that of the five contenders listed by Reuters. The caveat here is that the Reuters list is merely indicative, based on a quantitative analysis of the number of citations of each scholar in the discipline. The Nobel committee is unlikely to be influenced by quantitative metrics alone though the Reuters analysis claims that most scholars it has identified have eventually ended up winning the Prize.
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.
Cited over 24,000 times, Granovetter’s 1973 paper “The Strength of Weak Ties” is a social science classic and a milestone in network theory. Our close friends are strongly in touch with us and each other, he wrote, but our acquaintances – weak ties – are crucial bridges to other densely knit clumps of close friends. The more weak ties we have, the more in touch we are with ideas, fashions, job openings and whatever else is going on in diverse and far-flung communities.
The award honors the late Everett M. Rogers, a former associate dean at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and an influential communication scholar whose Diffusion of Innovation is the second-most cited book in the social sciences. Presented since 2007 on behalf of USC Annenberg by its Norman Lear Center, the award recognizes outstanding scholars and practitioners whose work has contributed path-breaking insights in areas of Rogers’s legacy.
At the USC Annenberg School on Wednesday, September 18 at 12 noon, Granovetter will present “The Strength of Weak Ties” Revisited. He will discuss how he came to write it; where it fits in the history of social network analysis; how its argument has held up over the years; and its significance in recent social revolutions, where it’s often been claimed that social networks are at the core of the new political developments. The event is free and open to the public but RSVP is required. (RSVP is available online at: http://bit.ly/189ayDM)
There is no doubt that being cited over 24,000 times is impressive. Granovetter’s work has been utilized in multiple disciplines and came at the forefront of an explosion of research on social networks and their effects.
At the same time, the press release makes a big deal about citations twice while also highlighting Granovetter’s specific findings. Which is more important in the world of science today: the number of citations, which is a measure of importance, or about the actual findings and how it pushed science forward? This award can contribute to existing debates about the importance of citations as a measure. What exactly do they tell us and should we recognize those who are cited the most?
But it is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.
Gladwell argues that the kind of weak ties (citing Mark Granovetter’s important article from the 1970s) that social networks are built upon are not the kind of networks that lead to substantial action.
I would be interested to hear how social movement theorists would respond to this piece. Could social media be adapted or altered in a way that could lead to substantial change?
Also, Gladwell is contributing to a larger debate: can the Internet be harnessed for social good? There is little doubt that Internet access gives people a lot of information and perhaps the opportunity to build a weak-ties network. But does it typically lead to more productive citizens or more engaged citizens? Where does WikiLeaks fit into this – is that activism or something else?
An article from NewScientist looks at the usefulness of “weak ties” among Facebook friends. This term dates back to a very influential sociology paper from the early 1970s:
In 1973, sociologist Mark Granovetter showed how the loose acquaintances, or “weak ties”, in our social network punch far above their weight in their influence over our behaviour and choices (American Journal of Sociology, vol 78, p 1360). Granovetter found that a significant percentage of people get their jobs as a result of information provided by a weak tie. Subsequent studies have revealed that weak ties benefit our health and happiness. Granovetter suggested that this is because these friends-of-friends aren’t like you, yet they are likely to be similar enough in social outlook and personal interests to have a positive influence.
Interesting suggestion in the article that we can only handle about 150 “genuine social relationships.” Even with tools like Facebook, relationships still require more focused interaction and we are limited in this regard. So if we have more than 150 Facebook friends, are we simply fooling ourselves?
Sites like Facebook allow for a broad friendship network with little maintenance needed by either “friend.” A question I have: while these “weak ties” may now be more accessible, how often do people use them to their direct advantage? Say I am looking for a job – can I find one on Facebook? I have several friends that are selling products or services and this seems to be a good way to get word out.