Thursday, September 17, 2009

Twitter Matters: Keeping Up with Weak Social Links

Lots of people just Don't Get(tm) social networking sites like FaceBook, MySpace, and especially Twitter. On the face of it, Twitter doesn't seem to make much sense: 140 character updates. But those of us who use Twitter a lot (I'm @neal4d, BTW) know that it's much more than that. Twitter engenders so much puzzlement because it's so restrictive, but the restriction is the genius of Twitter.

In this and the next two blog entries, I'm going to explore why Twitter is a Good Thing(tm) and some surprising ways it can insinuate itself into a useful workstream. The first of these observations is around links.

Andrew McAfee of Harvard has done a lot of research on how social networking intersects with the enterprise (soon to be captured in a book I can't wait to read, Enterprise 2.0). I saw him talk recently about why social networking is a valuable resource left barren by most companies. He defines 3 kinds of social links: strong, weak, and potential, shown in a bulls-eye layout:

bulleye diagram

Your strong links are the people you see regularly, either at the office or during the normal course of your life. There's a good chance you know what these people had for lunch, or at least one of their meals in the last week. The next layer represents your weak links. These are people you see intermittently (perhaps once a year). They are your friends that you don't get to see on a regular basis (because of geography, for example). A good example for me is my friend Hadi Hariri, who lives in Malaga, Spain. He & I see each other perhaps once a year (generally at conferences) and always have good fun & conversation. It's this group that social networking sites support. This is a valuable link because you are more likely to get novel ideas from this group than from your strong group. Before social networks, how did you keep up with your weak links? The Christmas Letter, summarizing a year's events? You are wasting an important link if you can't reach out to your weak links sometimes. You see your strong group all the time, so they hold few surprises. However, your larger and more diverse weak links provide novelty. The potential links are those who you'll form weak & strong links with, but you haven't met them yet. You're also more likely to be introduced to a potential links through your weak links.

Twitter provides a strong connectivity to your weak link. Here's an example of how weak links can lead down interesting paths. I met someone at the erubycon conference last year who's a well known figure in the Rails world and subsequently started follow his Twitter feed. He had very recently gone vegan for health reasons, and he tweeted a reference to an astounding book called The China Study. I read this book (and several other referenced in it) and have since been strictly vegetarian, at least for the time being. It's worth reading: it lays out the case against animal protein in your diet, and backs up the claims with real science. It's a profound book, enough to convince me to change my eating habits. I don't know if I'll stay this way forever, but I've been there for about 6 weeks and it has been quite pleasant. He was very much a weak link; I would have a hard time spotting him in a room. Yet we share enough context in the Ruby community for me to use him as a source of ideas, which sometimes lead to interesting places. In this case, I wouldn't currently be vegetarian if it wasn't for Twitter.

Finding a good mechanism for maintaining weak links and finding (and exploring) potential links allows you to work smarter because you have a broader arena for ideation. The combination of links, constraint, and meme ooze make Twitter very useful to me. I explore these other two aspects in the next two installments.


Trond said...

On the subject, check out Mark Granovetter's "The Strength of Weak Ties"

Unknown said...

I don't understand the chart. As a knowledge worker I don't even own any ties.

Stephan said...

Interestingly enough there's a meta level: I found this blog entry because of twitter and will send it to some friends who don't use Twitter (yet).

Apparently being loosely coupled is a good thing in more than one context.

Eric Wendelin said...

I like the idea of showing twitters usefulness through the strong, weak, potential link analogy. Bravo.

Unknown said...

Good post and parallels some reading and thinking I’ve been doing about social networking and the value, or lack thereof, within a corporate environment. Much of my thinking lately has been influenced by a book called Collaboration by Morten Hansen.

He really speaks to the people side of collaboration and the cultural barriers that limit collaboration. One of the strategies for increasing collaboration across an enterprise is to focus on creating those weak links as you noted in this post. Many call this creating T-shaped people. People that have the ability to have deep focus to accomplish their and their company’s goals but they also have the ability to go wide with little depth. T-shaped people area able to build relationships, those weak links, across the enterprise.

I’ve had real examples of the benefits of weak links that I’ve maintained through tools such as Twitter or Facebook. Those tools, at least for me, excel at keeping my weak links current and relevant. I believe the same can be said of providing social networking capabilities within the corporation. Providing a virtual water cooler for a distributed workforce, providing an increased social connection to those we work with or might work with, and creating value through those connections.

I also look forward to Andrew McAfee’s book and am looking forward to my pre-ordered copy to arrive :-)

daniel said...

Neal, congratulations on going vegetarian! And please see this document, if you haven’t already: Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets

Unknown said...

Does that mean you've given up butter chicken? Say it isn't so, old friend....

Ben said...

The ones that think Twitter, Facebook and all are of such immense importance are mostly the technical versantiled IT-affiliated kind of people that use it themeselves a lot.

Such posts always seem like a self justification of their time spent using twitter - like the hours, days, weeks even months you spend on sending out such trivial messages like: "just had lunch break".

Personally I found the interesting and elightening messages from Twitter being really limited. Nowadays I find much more thourough and interesting things on the mirrads of blogs and tech mags really. And if there is some news like Oracle aquires EHCache I really do not care if i get this like 10minutes faster than my collegue who doesn't use Twitter.
Though Twitter is not bad really. I just cannot take it serious as means of what you try to sell it for. When seeing it as a distraction, self-amusement ok - anything else is just being hypocritical in my point of view.

Please do not understand me wrong. I think Twitter as a business model or as a service is genious. But to argue using it efficiently just for your profession this i do not buy at all. Why? because its not possible to just cut out the trivia out from the system and use it professionally.