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Weak ties

Weak ties are people we don’t know very well

Weak ties are often friends of friends, or people we met recently. We would describe many of our weak ties as acquaintances. We communicate with most of our weak ties infrequently, often going months or even years without direct interaction. We know who our weak ties are, we know them by name and can recognize them, but we don’t know much about many of them. We have hundreds of weak ties, but as we saw earlier, we can only keep up to date with about 150 of them.

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Weak ties are people we don’t know so well.

Online social networks are making it easier to feel connected to many of our weak ties. Although we may not interact directly, we can more easily follow what is happening in their lives than we could before these tools existed, when we relied on gossip to stay up to date. This also introduces some awkward social exchanges that don’t exist offline. People are often worried about whether to accept a friend request, or delete a contact, in case they meet that person again. The binary nature of our online tools misses all the subtlety and nuance of our offline interactions with weak ties.

We usually interact with weak ties because of a common interest or object. This could mean meeting up via a mutual friend. Or it could mean interacting because we need to complete a shared task. Other times it might be because we share a hobby or are on the same sports team, or because we’re seeking information.

Weak ties can be powerful sources of information

In his seminal research paper on strong and weak ties, sociologist Mark Granovetter found that weak ties are often a better source of information than strong ties.20 Our weak ties are at the periphery of our social network, which means they are connected to more diverse sets of people than our strong ties, which are more central in our network. These diverse ties pass on more novel information, and so they can often know more than our strong ties do. Our unconscious brain detects this pattern, and instructs us to start searching for information two or three degrees away from us to ensure that we are receiving new information. This pattern has been observed with many things, including finding a new job or finding a good piano teacher.21

One downside to sourcing information from our weak ties is that we know less about their knowledge and whether we can trust their judgment. Their credibility is not as well defined as our strong ties. Because of this, surfacing information about our weak ties will be crucial for encouraging interactions between people. We will need to know that our weak ties are qualified to talk about specific topics, and that they are trustworthy.

What this translates to is that encouraging interactions between weak ties is good for business. Research has shown that increases in positive online comments appear a month or two before an increase in market share.22

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When people are looking for information and opinions from others, they look to their strong ties first because they know they can trust them, even though there are weak ties that have higher knowledge on the topic.


Quick Tips

When creating content, consider that although people’s weak ties may be more knowledgeable than their strong ties, they may trust them less. It is important to maximize the amount of trust between people. Some ways of doing this include showing their other shared ties, emphasizing their common interests, or exposing their sources of knowledge.


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