If you thought it was safe to ignore social media since all your colleagues were ignoring it, think again. If all you wanted to do is retreat from the world and tune out, think again. It turns out that the six degrees of separation that you assumed would protect you from the unwashed masses has shrunk to 4.74 (or 4.37, if you live in the United States). A recent experiment conducted with respect to the 721 Facebook users reveals that it’s getting easier to be in touch with people you would otherwise never have met. Put another way, it’s easier than ever for them to be in touch with you!
You may have until now aspired to be Greta Garbo as far as social media is concerned. However, that may be a shortsighted goal if you wish to have any influence on your world. Jon Kleinberg, a computer science professor at Cornell University, told The New York Times about the potential he sees in the weak ties that shrink the degrees of separation:
“We are close, in a sense, to people who don’t necessarily like us, sympathize with us or have anything in common with us,” Dr. Kleinberg said. “It’s the weak ties that make the world small.”
Still, he noted that such ties were hardly meaningless. “We should ask what things spread well on weak ties,” he said. “News spreads well on weak ties. Those people I met on vacation, if they send me some cool news, I might send that to my friends. If they send me something about a protest movement, I might not.”
To understand the import of Dr. Kleinberg’s views, you need to understand the concept of interpersonal ties. While you rightly may value the strong ties you share with your closest family and friends, chances are they hear the same news you do:
Weak social ties, it is argued, are responsible for the majority of the embeddedness and structure of social networks in society as well as the transmission of information through these networks. Specifically, more novel information flows to individuals through weak rather than strong ties. Because our close friends tend to move in the same circles that we do, the information they receive overlaps considerably with what we already know. Acquaintances, by contrast, know people that we do not, and thus receive more novel information.
As a person who earns her daily bread in a law firm, I read the report of the study in The New York Times and found myself wondering how many of the AmLaw 100 firms have a coherent strategy for taking advantage of these weak ties to bring themselves to the attention of potential clients. Do these firms have a plan for expanding their weak ties? Are these firms a reliable source for legal news? Do they communicate online in a way that is engaging and invites action by weak ties? Stepping outside the law firm world, does your organization have a coherent strategy for building and using a network of weak ties? What about you personally? If not, why not?
While this study was limited to Facebook, you shouldn’t think you’re immune if you’re inactive on Facebook. There are plenty of other social media platforms that provide similar benefits once your social network on that platform reaches a critical mass. To take a slightly more negative approach, do you really want to be left behind?
If you’ve ever been to a Disney theme park, you’ll undoubtedly have see (or even tried) the ride dedicated to global harmony — It’s a Small World After All. If you’ve had the experience, you’ll know that once its theme song gets in your head, you’ll have a struggle to get it out. (It’s alternatively described as a gift to the children of the world and “one of the most annoying songs EVER.”) I’m not going to apologize for reminding you of the song. I hope that its persistence acts as a goad until you find a sane way to navigate the rapidly shrinking degrees of separation online. Failure to do so isn’t a sensible option — it’s a small world after all.