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)