Tag Archives: weak ties

The science of friendship

Flickr/JimBoudThere is an interesting article by Robin Dunbar in The New Scientist: Dunbar’s Number was named after Robin, from his theorizing that humans only had the brain capacity to manage roughly 150 relationships, although depending on gender, social skills and personality, this number could vary from 100-250.  Dunbar observes that communication often breaks down when one exceeds 150 individuals (as evidenced in the Crimean War by the Charge of the Light Brigade) and the modern military and businesses only exceed these limits through strict hierarchies.

Dunbar theorizes that language, laughter and communal music-making evolved as a way to stay connected to a larger group of individuals than possible through physical acts like grooming. Dunbar: “[N]ot only can we speak to many people at the same time, we can also exchange information about the state of our networks in a way that other primates cannot. Gossip, I have argued, is a very human form of grooming.”  Christakis and Fowler (in the excellent book Connected) note that “…language is a less yucky and more efficient way to get to know our peers since we can talk to several friends at once but only groom them one at a time.  In fact, in a conversation with a small group, we can assess the behavior, health, aggressiveness, and altruism of several individuals simultaneously.  Plus, we can talk to someone else while engaged in another activity, like foraging for food in a refrigerator.”  Christakis and Fowler note how radical the idea is that language evolved not primarily as a way to exchange information but to maintain group cohesion.   “Dunbar estimates that language would have to be 2.8 times more efficient than grooming in order to sustain the [average] group size seen in humans” (one speaker per 2.8 listeners).

While language may have originally evolved, as per Dunbar, to maintain a slightly larger group size, once developed it was in principle possible to use language to maintain social relations on a tribal or national level.

A few other excerpts from Dunbar’s article:

Group living needn’t tax your intelligence too much. In a loose herd, cues such as body size or aggressiveness may be enough to judge whether you should challenge or steer clear of another individual. In bonded networks, however, you need to know each member’s personal characteristics and those of the friends and relations that might come to their aid. Keeping track of the ever-changing web of social relationships requires considerable mental computing power.

As a reflection of this, there is a correlation between the size of a species’ brain– in particular its neocortex– and the typical size of its social groups. In other words, brain size seems to place a limit on the number of relationships an individual can have. This link between group size and brain size is found in primates and perhaps a handful of other mammals that form bonded societies such as dolphins, dogs, horses and elephants. In all other mammals and birds, unusually large brains are found only in species that live in pair-bonded (monogamous) social groups.

As group size increases so too does the number of relationships that need servicing. Social effort is not spread evenly. Individuals put most effort into their closest relationships to ensure that these friends will help out when they need them. At the same time they maintain the coherence of the group. As a result, social networks resemble a nested hierarchy with two or three best friends linked into larger groupings of more casual friends, and weaker relationships bonding the entire group. This hierarchy typically has a scaling ratio of three– each layer of decreasing intimacy is three times larger than the one before it….

HUMAN SOCIAL NETWORKS

Our social networks can have dramatic effects on our lives. Your chances of becoming obese, giving up smoking, being happy or depressed, or getting divorced are all influenced by how many of your close friends do these things. A good social network could even help you live longer since laughing with friends triggers the release of endorphins, which seem to “tune” the immune system, making you more resilient to disease. So what factors influence the form and function that our social networks take.

In traditional societies, everyone in the community is related to everyone else, either as biological relatives or in-laws. In post-industrial societies this is no longer true– we live among strangers, some of whom become friends. As a result, our social circles really consist of two separate networks– family and friends– with roughly half drawn from each group.

Because the pull of kinship is so strong, we give priority to family, choosing to include them in our networks above unrelated individuals. Indeed, people who come from large extended families actually have fewer friends. One reason we favour kin is that they are much more likely to come to our aid when we need help than unrelated individuals, even if these are very good friends.

Family and friend relationships differ in other important ways, too. One is that friendships are very prone to decay if untended. Failure to see a friend for six months or so leaves us feeling less emotionally attached to them, causing them to drop down through the layers of our network hierarchy. Family relationships, by contrast, are incredibly resilient to neglect. As a result, the family half of our network remains constant throughout most of our lives whereas the friendship component undergoes considerable change over time, with up to 20 per cent turnover every few years.

More than 60 per cent of our social time is devoted to our five closest friends, with decreasing amounts given over to those in the layers beyond, until at the edge of the 150 layer are people we perhaps see once a year or at weddings and funerals. Nevertheless, the outer reaches of our social networks have a positive role to play. The sociologist Mark Granovetter at Stanford University in California has argued that these weak links in our social networks are especially useful in the modern world. It is through this widespread network of contacts that we find out about job vacancies and other economic or social opportunities. More importantly, perhaps, 70 per cent of us meet our romantic partners through these contacts.

Read “Getting Connected” by Robin Dunbar (New Scientist, 4/3/12)

Why weak ties are strong for job searches

Flickr photo by pvickering

Mark Granovetter is famous for uncovering the strength of weak ties in job searches (i.e., that weaker ties ironically are more helpful in landing jobs than one’s close friends).  Granoveter, after interviewing job seekers, posited that it was because one’s close friends tie one back to jobs and job leads that one already knew about whereas weak ties connected one to jobs that one hadn’t heard of.

Sandra Smith, sociology at Berkeley, is doing interesting work uncovering the why.  She’s interviewed 157 workers of various races and various job levels at a public university (Berkeley?) to learn of cases where they did and didn’t help people land jobs and what was good or bad about the experience.  Smith notes that in Granovetter’s work the job seekers often don’t know exactly what or was not done by their strong or weak tie.  [Her past work has been on how distrust hurts low-income blacks in the job referral process, but this new work, as of yet unpublished, is more general.]

It turns out, that people generally don’t refer their close friends to jobs for two reasons: 1) they are more worried that it will reflect badly on them if it doesn’t work out; and 2) they are more likely to know of the warts and foibles of their close friends and believe these could interfere with being a good worker (e.g., Jim stays up late to watch sports, or Charles has too much of an attitude, or Jane is too involved with her sick father).  Weak friends one can more easily project good attributes onto and believe this will work out.

She spoke of one interesting case, “Redmond”, who worked in a growing university department that was hiring 30 new people and whose manager asked workers to help refer good employees.  Redmond was asked soon thereafter by the parking attendant at his church whether he knew of any jobs for his wife who had lost her job (both the parking attendant and his wife were Ethiopian immigrants in the US and lived at Redmond’s church).  Redmond barely knew either of them, but took many steps to advance her candidacy (driving her to the interview, introducing her to people at the office, checking on her candidacy, and getting information filled out again when the paperwork was lost, etc.).  Redmond also had 10-15 good friends who needed a job, but he only told 2 about the available jobs, and even for those 2, didn’t take any steps to advance their candidacy since he had reservations about them.

In some cases, people did intervene on behalf of family or friends, but sometimes this was more lukewarm (e.g., enabling their applicant-friend to put the job-holder’s name on the applicant as a referrer, but making no efforts behind the scenes to advance their candidacy).

The job holders seem to put the interests of the workplace generally ahead of the interests of their friends, perhaps because they are jealously guarding their workplace reputation would could be sullied by a poor referral.    The job holders act as “moral” gatekeepers, trying to keep out the unworthy.

Smith is working to try to categorize types of job assistance and what leads one to help a friend/relative vs. helping a weak tie, and whether this assistance is to help the friend or improve the workplace.

Best friends may provide the most new and valuable info

Flickr photo of BFF from nokapixel

Mark Granovetter in a famous 1973 article “The Strength of Weak Ties” observed that it is our weaker social ties that are most likely to provide us access to information we don’t already know about: job leads, cross-fertilizing information that we can use to great advantage in our jobs, new opportunities, etc.

A recent paper by Sinan Aral and Marshall Van Alstyne says that Granovetter neglected to include frequency of contact.  Yes, our weak ties are more likely per contact to provide us new information, but we contact our strong ties so much more often that a majority of novel information actually comes through those strong and demographically similar friends.

Aral and Van Alstyne analyzed nearly a year of e-mail from an executive recruiting firm (heavily dependent on e-mail for communication and where novel information was critical in finding the right candidates) and found that those with a tighter group of friends (which they define via less network diversity) actually got a higher ratio of new information per unit of time and produced higher revenue for the firm.  As the authors hypothesized, recruiters with more diverse networks suffered a big drop in the volume of communication (what they call “channel bandwidth”).  “Interestingly however, reductions in channel bandwidth associated with greater network diversity do not seem to be driven solely by time and effort costs of network maintenance, but also by the nature of the relationships in sparse networks.” Van Alstyne concludes:  “a smaller number of high-bandwidth relationships can be good for you.”

So no need to jettison your best friends for now…

Read “Buddy System” (WIRED May 2011, by Clive Thompson)

See Sinan Aral and Marshall Van Alstyne, “Networks, Information & Brokerage: The Diversity-Bandwidth Tradeoff” (2010)

Does following the e-lives of ‘friends’ build social capital?

An interesting piece in the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times (9/7/08, “I’m So Totally, Digitally Close to You”) discusses the success of Facebook, Twitter, et al in getting users more comfortable with their personal details being shared with all their hundreds or thousands of friends and whether this “ambient awareness” actually produces social capital.

Clive Thompson describes how Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder, realized that in order to drive usage, he had to make it easier for users to find out what their friends were doing.  Users, seeking to find juicy tidbits (like that a friend had been dumped and his status was changed back to single) on other friends’ pages “was like constantly poking your head into someone’s room to see how she was doing. It took work and forethought. In a sense, this gave Facebook an inherent, built-in level of privacy, simply because if you had 200 friends on the site — a fairly typical number — there weren’t enough hours in the day to keep tabs on every friend all the time.” Zuckerberg decided to aggregate all the new information that friends had posted when you logged onto your Facebook page.  But Zuckerberg initially faced a revolution on the part of Facebook users who demanded privacy controls when he introduced NewsFeed: “…the first reaction, generally, was one of panic. Just about every little thing you changed on your page was now instantly blasted out to hundreds of friends, including potentially mortifying bits of news — Tim and Lisa broke up; Persaud is no longer friends with Matthew — and drunken photos someone snapped, then uploaded and tagged with names. Facebook had lost its vestigial bit of privacy. For students, it was now like being at a giant, open party filled with everyone you know, able to eavesdrop on what everyone else was saying, all the time.”  Faced with skyrocketing number of petitioners asserting that Facebook was becoming the Big Brother of the Internet, Zuckerberg ultimately agreed to provide users with controls to limit who got these feeds but not to remove the NewsFeed.  Users realized that they liked the sense of connection with their friends that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.  And Thompson claims that Zuckerberg, who was intentionally pushing the envelope, made users ultimately more comfortable sharing this personal information with others.

Most of the article is about why we are addicted to getting this personal information about others (*ambient awareness*). Ambient awareness is “very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does — body language, sighs, stray comments — out of the corner of your eye. Facebook is no longer alone in offering this sort of interaction online. In the last year, there has been a boom in tools for microblogging: posting frequent tiny updates on what you’re doing. The phenomenon is quite different from what we normally think of as blogging, because a blog post is usually a written piece, sometimes quite long: a statement of opinion, a story, an analysis. But these new updates are something different. They’re far shorter, far more frequent and less carefully considered. One of the most popular new tools is Twitter, a Web site and messaging service that allows its two-million-plus users to broadcast to their friends haiku-length updates — limited to 140 characters, as brief as a mobile-phone text message — on what they’re doing. There are other services for reporting where you’re traveling (Dopplr) or for quickly tossing online a stream of the pictures, videos or Web sites you’re looking at (Tumblr). And there are even tools that give your location. When the new iPhone, with built-in tracking, was introduced in July, one million people began using Loopt, a piece of software that automatically tells all your friends exactly where you are.”  Thompson observed that this builds on patterns observed by Japanese sociologist Mizuko Ito who found that couples living apart often found renewed intimacy by Ping-Ponging mini-messages that there were on the sofa or having a glass of wine.

Thompson indicates that for many over 30 it seems inane to be interested in posting or monitoring these micro-blogs, often of banal events (having a sandwich, brushing one’s teeth, waiting for a subway).  Some users strive for the arty message in only 140 text characters. But users find the process addictive and meaningful: “Indeed, many of the people I interviewed, who are among the most avid users of these awareness tools, admit that at first they couldn’t figure out why anybody would want to do this. Ben Haley, a 39-year-old documentation specialist for a software firm who lives in Seattle, told me that when he first heard about Twitter last year from an early-adopter friend who used it, his first reaction was that it seemed silly. But a few of his friends decided to give it a try, and they urged him to sign up, too.  Each day, Haley logged on to his account, and his friends’ updates would appear as a long page of one- or two-line notes. He would check and recheck the account several times a day, or even several times an hour. The updates were indeed pretty banal. One friend would post about starting to feel sick; one posted random thoughts like ‘I really hate it when people clip their nails on the bus’; another Twittered whenever she made a sandwich — and she made a sandwich every day. Each so-called tweet was so brief as to be virtually meaningless.

“But as the days went by, something changed. Haley discovered that he was beginning to sense the rhythms of his friends’ lives in a way he never had before. When one friend got sick with a virulent fever, he could tell by her Twitter updates when she was getting worse and the instant she finally turned the corner. He could see when friends were heading into hellish days at work or when they’d scored a big success. Even the daily catalog of sandwiches became oddly mesmerizing, a sort of metronomic click that he grew accustomed to seeing pop up in the middle of each day.”  Each entry seemed meaningless, but as the hours and days went by, Thompson indicates that the messages aggregated into a short story or a novel.

“This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating. The ambient information becomes like ‘a type of E.S.P.,’ as Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life.

” ‘It’s like I can distantly read everyone’s mind,’ Haley went on to say. ‘I love that. I feel like I’m getting to something raw about my friends. It’s like I’ve got this heads-up display for them.’ It can also lead to more real-life contact, because when one member of Haley’s group decides to go out to a bar or see a band and Twitters about his plans, the others see it, and some decide to drop by — ad hoc, self-organizing socializing. And when they do socialize face to face, it feels oddly as if they’ve never actually been apart. They don’t need to ask, ‘So, what have you been up to?’ because they already know. Instead, they’ll begin discussing something that one of the friends Twittered that afternoon, as if picking up a conversation in the middle.”

The real question it seems to me is to what extent this Twittering (posting and reading) is the equivalent of either mere voyeurism or people speaking into the wilderness (I have memories of a stranger who was once on a group bike ride trip with me in Canada. 80% of his comments were of the form ‘Having a little trail mix’ — comments seeking to establish some social ties with others, but coming out in self-focused banalities that were of little or no interest to anyone other than possibly the trail-mix eater).  But if the tracking of a friends’ rhythms really does make one better able to see when they have gotten sick or better able to build stronger friendships faster, my hats are off to them.  Myself, I think if I were monitoring 150 friends’ Twitterings a day, I’d be far less likely to understand whether someone was sick or have the time to provide TLC than if I actually called or e-mailed him or her.  Thompson’s anecdotes seem a mix of the two: folks who are following strangers’ Twitters but feel highly connected to them and ones who monitor their friends’ Twitterings.  I must admit that my priors are that the ‘sense of connectedness’ to others that comes from feeling intimately connected to others may be good for happiness, but I’m much more skeptical that it provides social support, or job leads, or TLC.   What’s most promising is that Twittering does seem to support and increase the number of weak ties and weak ties can be especially helpful in connecting one to job leads. It would be interesting to learn more about whether Twitterers twitter the fact that they are unemployed and looking for job leads or ask for social support through their Twitters.  Most of the Twitterings appear to be mere updates rather than demands on others.  But in principle Twitter contacts might be good sources of job leads (connecting to divergent social networks) even if they are unlikely to be fertile sources of social support (which usually require stronger social bonds of trust).

Thompson acknowledges some of this:

”I outsource my entire life,” Laura Fitton said. ”I can solve any problem on Twitter in six minutes.” [by asking her circle of thousands of Twitter-followers] (She also keeps a secondary Twitter account that is private and only for a much smaller circle of close friends and family — ”My little secret,” she said. It is a strategy many people told me they used: one account for their weak ties, one for their deeper relationships.)

It is also possible, though, that this profusion of weak ties can become a problem. If you’re reading daily updates from hundreds of people about whom they’re dating and whether they’re happy, it might, some critics worry, spread your emotional energy too thin, leaving less for true intimate relationships. Psychologists have long known that people can engage in ”parasocial” relationships with fictional characters, like those on TV shows or in books, or with remote celebrities we read about in magazines. Parasocial relationships can use up some of the emotional space in our Dunbar number, crowding out real-life people. Danah Boyd, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society who has studied social media for 10 years, published a paper this spring arguing that awareness tools like News Feed might be creating a whole new class of relationships that are nearly parasocial — peripheral people in our network whose intimate details we follow closely online, even while they, like Angelina Jolie, are basically unaware we exist.

”The information we subscribe to on a feed is not the same as in a deep social relationship,” Boyd told me. She has seen this herself; she has many virtual admirers that have, in essence, a parasocial relationship with her. ”I’ve been very, very sick, lately and I write about it on Twitter and my blog, and I get all these people who are writing to me telling me ways to work around the health-care system, or they’re writing saying, ‘Hey, I broke my neck!’ And I’m like, ‘You’re being very nice and trying to help me, but though you feel like you know me, you don’t.’ ” Boyd sighed. ”They can observe you, but it’s not the same as knowing you.”

….Caterina Fake, a founder of Flickr (a popular photo-sharing site), …suggested an even more subtle danger: that the sheer ease of following her friends’ updates online has made her occasionally lazy about actually taking the time to visit them in person. ”At one point I realized I had a friend whose child I had seen, via photos on Flickr, grow from birth to 1 year old,” she said. ”I thought, I really should go meet her in person. But it was weird; I also felt that Flickr had satisfied that getting-to-know you satisfaction, so I didn’t feel the urgency. But then I was like, Oh, that’s not sufficient! I should go in person!”

Ironically, Thompson notes how Facebook can start to approximate life in a small town, where you find you can’t get away from the people you dislike or the past you want to leave behind.  He provides stories of Facebook users seeing old hideous pictures of them posted on their Facebook site and tagged with their name, or exes discussing what you were like publicly.  One social scientist wonders whether every misstep will follow you through life and whether kindergarteners will have to face active choices about de-friending others.

It’s a thoughtful and provocative read.  Read the interesting “I’m So Totally, Digitally Close to You” (9/7/08, New York Times Sunday Magazine, p. 42, Clive Thompson).  The future of socializing is likely changing.  Let’s hope it is for the better or that we’re smart enough to make wise decisions about how to use it that leave us the master and not the slave to technology.