Granovetter's Weak Ties – How Weak Is Weak?

Many business users of social networking sites have heard Mark Granovetter’s 1973 paper, The Strength of Weak Ties, which concluded that “weak ties”, rather than “strong ties”, were more helpful in finding a job. This is often used as an argument to justify connecting with as many people as possible in social networking sites, even with no more interaction than the connection request and its acceptance.

Granovetter’s study is great, but we have to know what the definition of a “weak tie” is that he was using for the purposes of his study. We can’t make our own interpretation of “weak tie” and then use his paper to justify our actions if we’re not using the same definition of “weak tie”.

So what does Granovetter himself say?

It is sufficient for the present purpose if most of us can agree, on a rough intuitive basis, whether a given tie is strong, weak, or absent. [Unfortunately, he was apparently wrong, as people actually don’t seem to be able to agree.] […] Included in ‘absent’ are both the lack of any relationship and ties without substantial significance, such as a ‘nodding’ relationship between people living on the same street, or the ‘tie’ to the vendor from whom one customarily buys a morning newspaper. That two people ‘know’ each other by name need not move their relationship out of this category if their interaction is negligible.

Every single person you meet doesn’t elevate even to the level of “weak” in his definition, nor do people whose “interaction is negligible”. No interaction = no tie.

Let’s look at what another expert has had to say on the topic. Valdis Krebs is one of the world’s top experts in Social Network Analysis (SNA) – the creator of InFlow, a software tool used for analyzing relationships within organizations to help teams improve their effectiveness.

From a March 2004 InfoWorld interview, Capitalizing on Communication:

IW: These projects were about strengthening ties within groups. Where does Stanford University Sociology Professor Mark Granovetter’s “strength of weak ties” idea fit in?

VK: People have a wrong impression about what a weak tie is. It’s not just a casual acquaintance. A weak tie used to be a strong tie; there was trust and shared knowledge. If I go to a conference today and meet somebody new, people will say “That’s a weak tie.” I say no, it’s an acquaintance tie. But if I also run into Peter from Disney, who I used to work with, that’s a weak tie that can be reactivated. A lot of Granovetter’s research on weak ties was based on people who had known each other better before.

Your “weak ties”, as referenced in the Granovetter study, are exactly the people a tool like LinkedIn is designed to help you stay connected with and leverage your relationships with. It’s former co-workers, customers, vendors, schoolmates. Those are weak ties as Granovetter defined them. You don’t need LinkedIn to manage your truly strong ties, because you interact with them every day/week/month.

I’m not saying there’s no value in those “weaker than weak” ties, aka “acquaintance ties”. Yes, some of those can become the weak ties that lead to real value. But to raise them to the point of real valuable — to action, not just presence — generally requires more interaction than just mutual consent to be in each other’s database.

But I do hope people will stop using Granovetter to justify their own “light linking” behavior. It’s a complete distortion of the findings of his study if you’re not using the same definition of “weak ties” that he did.