The loose tie

You know a technology is mainstream when popular thinkers start attacking it. Malcom Gladwell stirred up a bee’s hive when he dared to question in the New Yorker (Small Change: Why this Revolution will not be Tweeted) that networks like Facebook and Twitter could lead to massive social movements and great change; the ties just aren’t strong enough to get people to engage in high risk behavior, like risking their lives for revolutionary causes, he argues.

Gladwell apparently wanted to stir up some controversy, and he did. He strikes at the heart of the social media movement. Social networks are made up of “loose ties,” and this is where the argument lies–just what is the value of the loose tie? Are all those @name connections going to amount to anything? Are we fooling ourselves thinking we can replace deep human relationships with these fleeting versions?   Is there a place for both?

The answer is: yes.

The reason is simple: loose ties connect us in ways we would have never been connected before, and to people we would never know or work with otherwise. Secondly, loose ties can evolve into close ties–indeed, they should in select cases.

Let me give you three personal examples:

  • I landed an Editor in Chief job at HP 18 months ago through a “loose tie” connection on Twitter, who had been reading my posts, personally referred me to the hiring manager. Bang-hired. She became a trusted colleague during my time there (I departed in Jan).
  • I put out a request recently to help my stepson (a very smart guy/recent biz graduate of UC Berkeley) find an entry level marketing job. Three people immediately responded with leads–all loose ties. Two of them even offered to send his resume around to select internal groups.
  • Just this week social media consultant and super blogger Jason Falls asked me to start blogging for his site, Social Media Explorer. He’d never seen me before except on Twitter, and that led him to check out my site and content and next thing I knew we were working out a win/win deal.

Much of my project work as a consultant comes from loose ties, and I gladly pass on job leads and help others when possible. Loose ties dissolve if there’s not some reciprocity and common purpose/passion.

The Internet makes all of this possible, of course.

Before the Internet, people were connected by phones. My mom had an old AT&T rotary phone for 30 years (leased to her by Ma Bell). When someone called it really meant something. When I’d talk too long on the phone to a friend, my dad would ask me to “give it a break.” Finally, he’d get frustrated and ask: “Why don’t you just go over there?” and I would, since everybody was within walking distance in my small Texas town.

These were the days of strong, deep relationships, big families, backyard BBQs and so on-the same kind of “personal connection” that might lead like-minded friends to get involved in a risky social revolution (Gladwells’ world).

It’s no wonder that today’s loose ties pale in comparison. Yes, in many cases they’re semi-superficial, low intensity bonds among people who don’t know each other, as Gladwell points out. But this is merely a reflection of our society, not a fundamental flaw in social media. It’s just the way it is. How many people know their neighbors as well as, say, a generation ago? How many people even have time to think anymore? We’re a fast-moving, fluid society, skimming the surface of the pond, snatching information and life in small bursts. Social media is the glue that connects us as we race through this new world-and it’s all about what you put into it.

Maybe there should be categories of ties, from strongest to weakest. Think about your levels of relationships. You may have hundreds of “friends” on Facebook you barely know, and hundreds or thousands on Twitter. But you also have smaller circles people you do know, and of course, even smaller circles of those you really know-these are the close ties. Where you put your energy in these spheres of relationships will shape your career and life.

The three people who responded to the plea for my stepson include one guy I’d worked with some before on a corporate blog project (almost a close tie); another I’d been connected with on Twitter/Facebook for over a year and was a little less familiar with (semi-loose); the last one I barely knew, except he was a senior communications manager connected to me on Facebook (loose/loose). Oh, and my brother in Texas also responded (close tie).

But the interesting point is this-I can’t predict which of these connections will come through or which one will lead to an invaluable tie later- it could easily be the (last) loose tie.

The truth is we’re just starting to learn how to connect these dots, and bring the digital relationships closer to home. It’s a much more fluid, fleeting world-more ambiguity, but also more opportunity.

As far as the issue of Gladwell and the role of social revolts, Clay Shirkey answered this in his book “Here Comes Everybody.” Social media breaks down barriers and drives down the cost of organizing to enable movements and results we could barely dream of in an earlier age. “When people care enough, they can come together and accomplish things of a scope and longevity that were previously impossible; they can do big things for love.”