Weak Ties Can Make a Strong Difference

Labor Personal Writings Social Media

            Pearl River     We were organizing nurses at a hospital in Amarillo, Texas some years ago in the time of the Haley Bopp comet.  We’d filed for an NLRB election, but we were far afield of our natural base in Texas in the big cities.  It was one of those situations where we should have said, “No,” but just couldn’t turn the workers down, even against terrible odds.  We were looking for allies anywhere we could find them.  Labor was not strong in the Texas panhandle, but the AFL-CIO did have an active central body there, and they were welcoming.  Asking for their support, I sat through a meeting which included appearances and presentations of a lot of local political figures intent on currying their favor, despite the very small size of their membership in the area.  Telling the story later to a close friend and comrade, the multi-disciplined University of Wisconsin professor Joel Rogers, he responded simply, “Yes, the strength of weak ties.”  I had no idea what he was talking about, but subsequently I got up to speed and have noticed evidence of this seemingly contradictory phenomenon frequently.

All of which made a recent report on a large causal test of this theory in Science very interesting to me.  A couple of social scientists from Northwestern University took a hard look at work by the business social network, LinkedIn, which was testing its basic People You May Know (PYMK) algorithm which recommends new connections to its existing users.  “It created random variations in the prevalence of weak ties in the professional networks of 20 million users over a 5-year period, during which 2 billion new ties and 600,000 job changes were recorded.”

They found some surprises, for example, “…ties with just one mutual friend, i.e. very weak ties, are more likely to lead to job changes than strong ties, such as those with 25 mutual friends or more.” But, on the other hand, “…a tie with 10 mutual friends nearly doubles the probability of changing jobs.”  In other words, “moderately weak ties appear to the most beneficial for job outcomes.”  All of this gives a confounding strength to the swallow definitions that have evolved of a “friend” via social media. The original “strength of weak ties” theory came before internet-enabled networking became so ubiquitous.

Science cautions that the research didn’t have demographic or gender data, so much of the original theory developed by Mark Granovetter in 1973 about how these ties also created inequality is still likely true.  They reference a study on graduate student placements in STEM and other professional fields that found that the “weak tie hypothesis appears to hold only for male students.  All else being equal, female students competing for the same jobs seem to need both weak and strong ties to other women to get the best jobs….” Women still can’t catch a break, and that may likely be true for minorities as well.  Furthermore, it’s not likely to just be an inherent basis in science fields, but more generally true.

The moral here, brothers and sisters, even if you’re happy as a clam in your existing job and aren’t looking to leave, don’t ever underestimate the value of those Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other so-called friends in your social media world.  It turns out that a “friend in need, is a friend indeed,” no matter how you came to claim them.