Why Casual Facebook Contacts Are More Useful Than Close Friends

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wiredembedPhoto: via Wired
Who is more valuable to your social network: your close friends or your casual Twitter followers? While nothing compares to genuine friendship, it might be that guy or girl you met once at a party three years ago — your "weak ties" — that lead you in the direction to your next job. This idea is the focus of a buzzed-about Wired op-ed that claims our casual contacts hold the greatest untapped potential.

Writer Clive Thompson starts off with an example that gives modern relevance to how heeding the "kindness of strangers" might revolutionize your life. During a Brooklyn Heights house hunt, his wife Emily randomly updated her Facebook status to declare her surprise after receiving Wi-Fi at the 15th Street subway (a true shock, indeed); friends responded amicably— and, so does Anne, a woman Emily barely remembered. Suddenly, things get interesting. "...Anne pointed out that hey, coincidentally, she had some friends who were just about to put their house on the market in that area. Next week, in fact! Quickly the dominoes began to topple." So, just like that, a woman with no seeming relevance to their lives ended up leading the couple to their new home.

Here is the magic of a "weak tie" in action. The people we barely know can be the ones to change our lives the most, and in quite unexpected ways. As Thompson notes, "In a world of status updates, tangential, seemingly minor ties become part of your social fabric. And they can bring in some extremely useful information."

Social researchers have studied the formation and influence of our personal social networks for decades. In 1973, sociologist Mark Granovetter discovered that those who found new jobs via personal contacts were notably happier (and better paid) than those who applied through traditional ads. And, many of those happy workers found those jobs through "weak ties" — people they saw once a year or less. “It is remarkable,” Granovetter noted, “that people receive crucial information from individuals whose very existence they have forgotten.” That was forty years ago. Obviously, in the age of constant social media webbing, more of us have more weak ties than ever. But, are we utilizing them wisely?

Maybe not, thanks to the concept of homophily, a theory that suggests we have a tendency to interact with people who mirror us demographically, culturally, intellectually, politically, and professionally. You know, birds of a feather — and so on. It's how we bond, but it has its drawbacks, such as giving and receiving information from the same pool. Any job you know about, your close friend likely does, too.

Weak ties shake things up a bit and bring unexpected resources and ideas to you, if you open yourself to it. So, take a chance and go beyond the first few updates in your Facebook feed (its algorithms operate specifically on homophilic ranking). You never know who you may encounter. [Wired]