Get better ideas by interacting with others with different ideas

One secret to innovation is to interact with people who differ from you and are outside your closer network:

The tendency of people to seek out insights from people in different fields, different organizations or of different mindsets is called “brokerage” and has been carefully studied by academics.

It can lead to better ideas, better promotions, and better salaries — whether you work in product design, contracting or finance…

But if you’re charged with innovation, you need to branch out and build brokerage, said Ronald Burt, the Hobart W. Williams Professor of Sociology and Strategy at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

“It’s essential,” Burt said. “The new ideas we come up with come from the places where we vary. A person who only knows about the variation in what they do will get better at what they’re doing, but will always come to the same place.”

Burt goes on to discuss how people need two sets of connections: close ones (which helps provide closure) and a few regular connections with distant people (weak ties) who will provide you with different perspectives outside your close group. This all emphasizes the power of social networks: information (as well as other things like motions) can be passed through a network through the social connections.

“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.

Facebook’s Data Science Team running experiments

Facebook’s Data Science Team of 12 researchers is working with all of its data (900 million users worth) and running experiments:

“Recently the Data Science Team has begun to use its unique position to experiment with the way Facebook works, tweaking the site-the way scientists might prod an ant’s nest-to see how users react… So [Eytan Bakshy] messed with how Facebook operated for a quarter of a billion users. Over a seven-week period, the 76 million links that those users shared with each other were logged. Then, on 219 million randomly chosen occasions, Facebook prevented someone from seeing a link shared by a friend. Hiding links this way created a control group so that Bakshy could assess how often people end up promoting the same links because they have similar information sources and interests.

“He found that our close friends strongly sway which information we share, but overall their impact is dwarfed by the collective influence of numerous more distant contacts-what sociologists call “weak ties.” It is our diverse collection of weak ties that most powerfully determines what information we’re exposed to.”

But if that sounds a little creepy, it shouldn’t. Well, not too creepy, because these kinds of experiments aren’t designed to influence us, but rather understand us. The piece continues:

“Marlow says his team wants to divine the rules of online social life to understand what’s going on inside Facebook, not to develop ways to manipulate it. “Our goal is not to change the pattern of communication in society,” he says. “Our goal is to understand it so we can adapt our platform to give people the experience that they want.” But some of his team’s work and the attitudes of Facebook’s leaders show that the company is not above using its platform to tweak users’ behavior. Unlike academic social scientists, Facebook’s employees have a short path from an idea to an experiment on hundreds of millions of people.”

I think there is a lot of room to explore the world of weak ties on Facebook and similar websites. Just how much do friends of friends affect us? What is the impact of people a few ties along in our network? For example, the book Connected shows that traits like obesity and happiness are tied to network behavior which could be examined on Facebook.

I would guess some people may not like hearing this but there are at least three points in Facebook’s favor here:

1. They are not the only online company running such experiments. Google has been doing such things with search results for quite a while. Theoretically, these experiments could help create a better user experience.

2. People are voluntarily giving their data. I don’t think these companies have to explain that user’s data might be used in experiments…but perhaps I am wrong?

3. This is “Big Data” writ large. Facebook and others would love to be able to run randomized trials with this large group and with all of the information available to researchers.

A new world where weak social ties can spread videos like Kony 2012

The Kony 2012 video has been watched over 65 million times on YouTube. While there has been much commentary about how the video lacks nuance, there is another interesting issue to consider: how exactly did it spread so quickly? One columnist suggests the sociological idea of weak ties provides some insights:

Many years ago, the Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter published a seminal article in the American Journal of Sociology on the special role of “weak ties” in networks – links among people who are not closely bonded – as being critical for spreading ideas and for helping people join together for action.

An examination of the spread of the Kony video suggests that one weak tie in particular may have been critical in launching it to its present eminence. Her name is Oprah Winfrey and she tweeted: “Have watched the film. Had them on show last year” on 6 March, after which the graph of YouTube views of the video switches to the trajectory of a bat out of hell. Winfrey, it turns out, has 9.7 million followers on Twitter…

In this online world of weak ties, famous tweeters like Oprah Winfrey have more influence than they have ever had before. Even though television shows or movies might be larger cultural works, new developments like Twitter and Facebook allow anyone with some influence to reach a large number of people quickly. With Winfrey located closer to the middle of a global cultural network, her suggestion can resound throughout the world.

The same columnist also considers what might happen as the result of these weak ties. In other words, what does it matter that over 65 million people saw this video?

The really interesting question, though, is whether this kind of development will further ratchet up the pressure on democratic politicians. The last two decades have shown how 24/7 media coverage of foreign atrocities can lead western leaders to morally driven interventionism.

We’ll have to see how this plays out. The Kony video itself claims that these sorts of media efforts work as they already pushed the United States to send 100 military advisers to central Africa. Additionally, they say this happened “because the people demanded it.” But they also suggest their viral efforts are not enough: the video talks about targeting a collection of political and cultural leaders, “20 culture-makers and 12 policy-makers.” Take these figures, such as Oprah Winfrey or Condoleezza Rice, out of the campaign and would as many people, in the public or on Capitol Hill, pay attention? Could just the public put enough pressure on governments through social media or viral videos? Also, the video itself is quite a production (a number of people involved in making it, per the credits on the YouTube video) from an established organization. This is a little different from a 10 year making a video in her bedroom.

This is not to take away from the fact that this videos has reached a tremendous amount of people. But if we want to understand why all those people paid attention, the story is much more complicated. Mass numbers can have an influence but powerful people are more centrally located within social networks and have more influential ties. If Kony 2012 is going to have legs and lead to lasting change, weak ties may not be enough.

Dunbar’s number: 150 friends is our limit

It seems like it is pretty easy to collect hundreds of friends on Facebook. Between people we know from years of schools plus jobs plus other activities, the number can increase quickly. But having a large number of online “friends” goes against Dunbar’s number:

Most of Dunbar’s research has focused on why the GORE-TEX model was a success. That model is based on the idea that human beings can hold only about 150 meaningful relationships in their heads. Dunbar has researched the idea so deeply, the number 150 has been dubbed “Dunbar’s Number.”

Ironically, the term was coined on Facebook, where 150 friends may seem like precious few…

Dunbar has found 150 to be the sweet spot for hunter-gatherer societies all over the world. From the Bushmen of Southern Africa to Native American tribes, a typical community is about 150 people. Amish and Hutterite communities — even most military companies around the world — seem to follow the same rule.

The reason 150 is the optimal number for a community comes from our primate ancestors, Dunbar says. In smaller groups, primates could work together to solve problems and evade predators. Today, 150 seems to be the number at which our brains just max out on memory.

Dunbar goes on to suggest that larger organizations then have to find ways to create smaller groups where people can still maintain connections with others.

I’ve thought for a while that Facebook should move away from saying that all people you are connected to are “friends.” This indicates a closeness that I suspect doesn’t really exist in many of these online relationships. They are probably more like “acquaintances” or “people you have interacted with.” But, imagine what would happen if someone you thought was a friend marks you an acquaintance or vice versa. Additionally, by calling everyone a friend, you are suggesting that you are open to a broader set of relationships and Facebook is interested in bringing more people together. If we wanted to get more sociological, we might call these “strong” and “weak” ties but this seems fairly impersonal.

Figures from a few years ago suggested that people had an average of 120 Facebook friends. This still seems like a lot even as sociological research from 2006 (read the full study here) suggests that Americans have fewer confidants and less contact with existing confidants:

In 1985, the average American had three people in whom to confide matters that were important to them, says a study in today’s American Sociological Review. In 2004, that number dropped to two, and one in four had no close confidants at all…

The percentage of people who confide only in family increased from 57% to 80%, and the number who depend totally on a spouse is up from 5% to 9%, the study found. “If something happens to that spouse or partner, you may have lost your safety net,” Smith-Lovin says.

Here are two tentative hypotheses regarding this data:

1. Younger Facebook users are more likely to have higher numbers of friends. This seems to be driven by being students in high school and college where it is common to friend lots of people across a broad swath of classroom, social activity, and living situations.

2. Older Facebook users are more uncomfortable with the term “friends” to describe online relationships. Of course, as the younger generation ages and is used to such terms, the term will become more normal.

Malcolm Gladwell: “the revolution will not be tweeted”

Malcolm Gladwell has been recognized by sociologists at being adept at combining social science and journalism. In a recent New Yorker piece, Gladwell is at it again, this time tackling the issue of whether participation in phenomena like Facebook and Twitter can lead to substantial social movements. Gladwell is skeptical:

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?

Meeting romantic partners online

Time reports on some research that suggests meeting romantic partners online is becoming a regular way of life:

Nearly 30% of new couples now meet online. Today the Internet is the second-most common way to meet a partner, according to results from the How Couples Meet and Stay Together Survey, with web introductions ranked only behind introduction by mutual friends.

Taken in 2009, the survey polled more than 4,000 Americans about their romantic relationships.

Looking online for partners is quite different than the traditional methods. For one, it expands the potential pool of partners. Before the Internet, people were generally limited to their personal connections, the institutions in which they were a part (work, religious organizations, civic organizations, etc.) or their weak ties (introductions by mutual friends). Two, it involves a different process of presenting oneself. Instead of an initial face-to-face interaction, the two people create profiles and search for matches.

According to the story, the research also found that those people who met each other through church had the highest relationship satisfaction.

Expanding your “weak ties” on Facebook

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.