Facebook and the Strength of Weak Ties

Facebook isn't about close friendships.

Posted May 14, 2010

Time for confessions: I have only been a frequent Facebook user since the beginning of this year. 

Before then, I was part of the bemused masses that couldn't quite figure out why you'd want to post little details of your life up for public inspection.  Or, more to the point, why anyone who wasn't a stalker or my husband would want to know about the little details of my life.

But I have become enlightened!

I have come to love Facebook.  Love being able to post dumb little pictures of my son in a lab coat playing baseball with a ping pong ball and meter stick.  Love reading about my husband's cousin's dogs and my sister's cats.  Love posting pictures of yesterday's bee swarm on our Psychology Department's Facebook page for alums to giggle over.

Simultaneously, I have also been talking to students about their concerns about internet privacy and the information social networking sites can glean about their lives and blogging about the hurt that kids can do to each other through social network sites.

And I've been thinking about how to explain to my mother-in-law, who has just begun to dip her toes in the internet, why I think she should join Facebook.

In the course of my research, I came across a letter to the editor in the NYTimes that stated 'I don't use Facebook, because I value quality and not quantity in my friendships.'

Reading that letter, it struck me that this missed the whole point. Facebook doesn't substitute for close friends.  It serves an entirely different function: that of community.  It's not your family, it's a small town.  In my case, a very, very small town.

I have a relatively small number of Facebook friends (less than 40).  Most of them are family members - sibs, parents and in-laws, my cousins, my husband's family, and very old family friends.  A few of them are old students who I knew well and who worked in my lab but I rarely see now.  A couple are friends from college.  A few are people I have known for years and years through other internet forums, like listservs. 

Keeping up with them on Facebook is just like going to the grocery store in the town I live in.

I have a nodding acquaintance with almost everyone there.  I almost always stop and chat with someone.  I rarely talk about anything important, but I hear about a child's violin lesson or a fall from a bike or a new dog.  Little bits and pieces of their lives. 

It's one of the things that I love about living in a small town.  But it is very, very different from the deeper friendships I have.

Being on Facebook, I get to see - over time - the fabric of people's lives.  I have come to hear about my cousins, who I have only seen at funerals in the last few years.  I get enough gleanings from sibs that I know that maybe I should call and have a long and more serious chat about something that sounds more serious.  I get links to funny videos on YouTube or serious articles in local newspapers.  And I really like that.

Students of friendships and social networks have long distinguished between strong and weak ties.  Strong ties are people like friends, who you can rely on in a crunch and with whom you share many connections and multiple acquaintances.  They provide social support.  Strong ties tend to be very much like ourselves and - because they are in our close social networks - usually know the same people and the same kinds of things that we do.

Weak ties are people we know casually - the person we buy a newspaper from or who we chat with at the bus stop.  Weak ties are more dissimilar to us and have social networks that overlap with ours to a much lesser extent.

Interestingly, strong and weak ties tend to serve different functions in our lives.

When we need a big favor or social or instrumental support, we ask our friends.  We call them when we need to move a washing machine

But if we need information that we don't have, the people to ask are our weak ties.  They have more diverse knowledge and more diverse ties than our close friends do. We ask them when we want to know who to hire to install our washing machine.

A well balanced social network has both types of ties. 

And different types of social media - like telephones or e-mail or social networking sites - tend to tap differently into those functions.

© 2010 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved


For people who don't use Facebook and still can't figure out why you would . . .

I posted this blog entry to my Facebook page and my brother sent me a note talking about how he first learned about social networking.  He included this little animation about twitter (a service I have tried in my statistics class, but did not wind up using).  But it is a great explanation for people who wonder why anyone would want to use a social networking site or a service like twitter and very relevant to this post and the differences between communication of strong and weak ties.