The Weakness of Strong Ties

We all know about The Strength of Weak Ties. What’s also very important is The Weakness of Strong Ties.

As network comprehension steadily advances, so does hype, misunderstanding and downright, objectionable falsehoods about social networks, social media and social business.

Some is just learning and naivety. Some is deliberate. Some originates from network dilettantes. It is infuriating that many people think they can just make naïve claims about network science.

Besides being a nuisance, network ignorance can be dangerous too. Problematic are so-called experts being highly dismissive of network laws, science, experts, practice and advice.

For example, some recent blogs and Websites talk erroneously about the great importance of ‘strong ties’ to creating economic value. (?)

They declare the social network analysis (SNA) principles of ‘strong ties’ are important to creating economic activity. They imply ‘strong ties’ and creating stronger ties are quantitatively and qualitatively better for prosperous outcomes. They claim ‘strong ties’ are ‘gold’ to online or social business. This is wrong, dangerous and ill-informed.

Here are some basic descriptions.

Strong ties are key interpersonal links requiring maximal time to maintain. They exhibit deep emotional properties and intimacy. Strong ties are intense and reciprocal. Strong ties are rare. Typical strong ties are with a spouse, children, parents and siblings. Most people have less than ten authentic strong ties.

Weak ties are composed of links that are more casual, fluid and dynamic. They represent the ever-changing orbit of acquaintances, friends, classmates, colleagues, etc. Weak ties may have proximate and virtual properties. They require little or no effort to maintain. People often have more than a hundred weak ties. Some, of course, have many more.

Absent ties are in-network nodes that lack specific links. Absent ties are very powerful. They offer the potentiality of links. They are extremely important to markets, business and civil society. 

Many network laws are counterintuitive. However, they are very easy to grasp once you ‘suspend disbelief.’ Stories are one way to grasp ideas.

FirehouseIn days past, and for years and years, many rural New England towns had volunteer fire companies. If there was a fire, you called the town ‘fire’ number. A volunteer would answer and get the address. They would then blast an enormous civil defense horn with a particular code.

The code corresponded to segments of the town. The volunteers and residents had little a yellow sheet with a town map with each code marked. It was usually pinned next to the phone in their house.

They would all scramble to the fire. Someone would go to the firehouse and startup the engine on the fire truck. Non-volunteer residents would respond. It was somewhat primitive, but it worked okay. This network created fire protection (benefits) through weak ties.

Today, of course, we have 911. It creates substantial benefits through a different type of tie – absent ties. This key principle is based on potential ties. The 911 network value is in absent but potential ties. It is the potentiality of transaction that creates civil protection.

Weak and absent ties serve the high velocity, diverse and rapidly changing information space extremely well. They help save life and limb. Strong ties are a deadly mistake in fast moving, dynamic environments like markets, innovation, business, technology, media and, of course, civil society.

(See Hastily Formed Networks.) 

Now, say you see house on fire on your street. You do NOT call your ‘strong ties’ (spouse, sibling) and say, “Duh, what do I do?” Ya call 911, brother… and fast!

Say you are in Cleveland and you see a bank holdup. You don’t call back to your hometown to find a strong tie to report it. (?) You use the 911 Network!

You do NOT know who you will reach because for you and everyone else, 911 in Cleveland is composed of absent, in-network ties. Yet, there is ENORMOUS value in 911. What? Value in a network of absent ties! Hunh? Wow!

Here is a simple table from David Reed for the geeks among us.


David P. Reed

Enter Group Forming Networks (GFNs). A GFN directly enables and supports affiliations (such as interest groups, clubs, meetings, communities) among subsets of its customers with absent ties.

David P. Reed

GFNs tools and technologies, all have a common theme—they allow small or large groups of network users to coalesce and to organize their communications around a common interest, issue, or goal. GFNs are composed of absent ties, like 911. Sometimes they have weak ties, like rural New England in years past. They create enormous, exponential benefits and advantages.

Strong ties are counterproductive.
For another example, say you list your favorite, slightly used chain saw on eBay. You do NOT run out, excitedly, and ask your wife or dad (strong ties) to look and make a bid. (?) That, of course, is absurd. Law: strong ties are counterproductive to social media, social business, prosperity and selling used stuff. Rather, we all depend on absent ties, the eBay marketplace, to sell our stuff.

Take Away: All network benefits, advantages and opportunities originate from absent or weak ties.    

Concerning relationship economics, prosperity inhabits group forming networks of absent ties and occasionally weak ties. Strong ties hurt and diminish value creation.

These principles must become innate like they are at eBay, Google, Amazon, etc. It is common for people to not ‘get it’ first time around. To scale social business everything depends on mastery of GFNs, absent and weak ties. Forget about strong ties. It’s a grievous error. It’s a killer.

Furthermore, network laws like GFNs are often native, subconscious and innate to some Millennials and many post-Millennials.  Baby Boomers and Generation X struggle to comprehend network laws.

Finally, please remember group forming networks and relationship economics are mostly self-authoring. Markets are formed as individuals opt into fluid constituencies of absent and weak ties that hold the possibility of affinity, benefits and prosperous outcomes.

Equip yourself with the basic network laws. They are simple and profound. They are very important. They need to sink in.

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