Some ideas have long lives, like the idea that “weak ties” are more critical for successful networks than “strong ties.” Some 45 years after sociologist Mark Granovetter published the original academic paper that established this idea, we at nCent thought that it deserves revisiting. In a world where technology is creating tremendous advances in our ability to create and sustain social networks, it helps to remind ourselves of the original discoveries in network theory. These discoveries also help highlight the potential power of tapping into our “weak ties” with blockchain technology.
Imagine that you recently found out you will be let go from your job, so you must find a new one. You want to spread the word to people in case anyone knows of an opening. Who will you choose to tell: close colleagues you worked with in the past or people in your profession you’ve met once or twice?
The weak ties theory proposes that you tell the latter group. At first, this might seem odd because close colleagues are more motivated to help you than people you barely know. However, your “weak ties” are much more likely to know people outside of your close network and therefore have access to information that your close network lacks. Information about the right job opening for you is more likely to come from your weak ties than from your strong ties.
Information about the right job opening for you is more likely to come from your weak ties than from your strong ties.
This, in essence, is the weak ties theory. Your strong connections are likely to be siloed: All of your close contacts are likely to know each other and spend most of their time with each other. Very little new information is going to come into your close network. In contrast, your weak connections likely travel in different circles and so will have access to new information that your close network lacks. The strength of your network is proportional to the number of your weak ties.
Granovetter’s original article distinguishes between regular network paths and “bridges.” All networks contain paths that connect between nodes. A path becomes a bridge when it is the only one that connects a specific node to another. Bridges are particularly important for networks because they connect spheres of information that would otherwise not speak to each other. For example, a bridge might be a medical doctor whose brother is a lawyer and who can connect doctors to the legal world when the need arises. Or a bridge might be a U.S. government official with personal contacts in a foreign country and who can facilitate cross-country communication on sensitive policy issues.
Bridges are key to information transfer in networks. Without them, networks become debilitated. The more bridges a network has, the faster information can flow through it. Moreover, a network with many bridges is likely to have access to more diverse information.
Granovetter suggests that weak ties are far more likely to be bridges in a network than strong ties. This is because your strong ties — the people you know well — are also likely to know each other well. This means that there would be numerous paths from you to any one of your close contacts. Thus, none of your strong ties is likely to be a bridge to another network. In contrast, weak ties are more likely to be connected to networks you do not know, and so they are much more likely to be bridges.
weak ties are more likely to be connected to networks you do not know, and so they are much more likely to be bridges
The data Granovetter brings forth in his 1973 article are illustrative in helping us see the importance of weak ties. He cites the ingenious studies done by psychologist Stanley Milgram that tested whether we live in a “small world.” A participant in the study was given a booklet that he or she must then pass on to some randomly chosen person in the U.S. through referrals and mutual acquaintances. The study found that the proportion of successful deliveries ranged between 12% and 33%, and the number of links in the chain ranged from 2 to 10. But more importantly, the study also found that sending the booklet to an acquaintance made it more likely that it would eventually be delivered to the right recipient compared to sending the booklet to a friend. This teaches us that connecting with weak ties enabled networks to be more successful.
Another illustrative study that Granovetter cites was done by sociologists Rapoport and Horvath in 1961. Students in a Michigan junior high school were asked to rank their 8 best friends. The researchers created a network from the persons listed at the highest rankings and another network from the persons listed at the lowest rankings. The results were clear: The network created from all the best friends was much smaller than the network created from the acquaintances. The aggregation of weak ties led to a much larger network than the aggregation of small ties.
The upshot is that research teaches us about a well-known phenomenon of weak ties in our networks, and we note that these weak ties are totally underutilized, especially on the internet. What’s more, we think there is a simple way to systematically find and exploit these connections, which is why we built nCent.
The combination of incentives and blockchain technology can be an effective way of cultivating weak ties. Incentives make it worthwhile for people to join a network. Blockchain technology creates the security, scalability, and auditability of the network — and it does this in a completely trustless way. A blockchain-driven incentive market connects everyone through multiple paths, reducing the reliance on specific bridge nodes and increasing the effectiveness of the entire network as a result.
The idea, in practice, is to use nCent to incentivize people to search for anything or perform any kind of work while recruiting their weak ties to help, too. This process taps into the untapped resource of the weak ties of a network, which makes nCent like a heat seeking missile for systematically finding and exploiting the most valuable information from your network — which oftentimes is hiding in plain sight in your weak ties.
nCent is like a heat seeking missile for systematically finding and exploiting the most valuable information from your network — which oftentimes is hiding in plain sight in your weak ties.