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The Ties that Bind

Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist, offers a fascinating follow up to a Malcolm Gladwell article in the New Yorker.

In the New Yorker article, Gladwell argues that online social networks are based on weak ties— a weak tie is a friend of a friend, or casual acquaintance—  and thus are ill suited for activism that challenges the status quo. For that type of revolution you need strong ties.

Lehrer believes that Gladwell’s denigration of weak ties in social activism is a bit misplaced. In his rebuttal he dug up a paper titled “The Strength of Weak Ties.” Granovetter argued that people were nearly three times as likely to have found their job through a “personal contact” than through an advertisement, headhunter or other “formal means.” (Keep in mind the paper was written in the 70s). Furthermore, Lehrer continues, more than 80 percent of these helpful personal contacts tended be people we only saw “occasionally” or “rarely,” which is why Granovetter called them “weak ties”.

According to Lehrer:

Granovetter goes on to argue that weak ties play a seminal role in building trust among a large group of loosely affiliated members, which is essential for rallying behind a cause. (He compares the West End to Charlestown, which was full of “bridging weak ties” and successfully fought off a massive urban renewal project.)

While Gladwell argues that the flat hierarchies of online networks are a detriment to effective activism — he cites the leaderless P.L.O. as an example — Granovetter points out that leaders of social movements often depend on weak ties to maintain loyalty. He notes that organizations dominated by strong ties tend to produce fragmentation and cliquishness, which quickly leads to the breakdown of trust.

This suggests that part of the reason Martin Luther King was able to inspire such discipline among a relatively large group of followers was that he cultivated a large number of weak ties.

Read the Gladwell Article.
Read a brief summary of the Gladwell Article.
Read Lehrer’s thoughts.
Read Granovetter’s The Strength of Weak Ties

If you’re interested in the positives of social media, you should check out The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change.. Another read is the bible of the social media movement, Here Comes Everybody.

Jonah Lehrer is the author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist