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weak tie theory

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

Weak tie theory is the proposition that acquaintances are likely to be more influential than close friends, particularly in social networks.

Weak tie theory derives from Nick Granovetter's 1973 article "The Strength of Weak Ties," which was about the spread of information through social networks. At that time, social networking happened almost entirely in the physical world. However, many early social network theories have since been demonstrated naturally through social media and in many cases, sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have accelerated the processes involved.

Granovetter categorized interpersonal ties as strong, weak or absent. A strong tie is someone within a close circle of family and friends. Strong ties are essential for real community but they are typically groups with a great deal of similarity and, as such, less likely than more tenuous connections to carry new information and perspectives to their groups.

Social media influencers are prime examples of weak ties. They typically have large groups of followers and their impact is also distributed among the networks of those followers. (Weak ties that connect social networks are sometimes called bridges.) Absent ties are connections that might be expected to exist but don't. For example, it might be assumed that two prominent writers in a given genre would be connected. An absent tie is the lack of a connection between such people. As a rule, an absent tie can be transformed to a weak tie fairly easily. Similarly, an absent tie or a weak tie could become a strong tie through interaction.

Because networks of strong ties are self-limiting, they can lead to what is sometimes called a filter bubble: A restriction of news, information and ideas that results from things like search personalization and maintaining connections mostly within homogenous groups of people. The limitation can stem from confirmation bias, which is the human tendency to seek out sources of information that support our existing perspective and beliefs. A larger social network including numerous weak ties, on the other hand, is likely to challenge that tendency and support critical thinking.

Within the enterprise, a department or a project team could be considered a group of strong ties. According to weak tie theory, encouraging intergroup communication and collaboration is likely to increase the dissemination of ideas and information and promote creativity and innovation. Creating more connections among employees will increase the flow of ideas -- and that is especially true for employees that have no apparent need to communicate. Promoting the creation of weak ties might generate revenue-generating opportunities, cost-cutting strategies, recommendations for productivity enhancement, improvements in product development, among endless other possibilities.

This was last updated in July 2017

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