Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Weak Connections = Strong JuJu

So it turns out that having a lot of friends on Facebook might actually be a good thing.

Farhad Manjoo, who is quickly becoming my go-to guy for current social media research, highlights a study released this week by Facebook’s research team that shows the personal echo chamber many worried about as this crazy Internet thing caught on isn’t as echoey or chambery as many feared it would be.

The echo chamber – for you troglodytes who have never heard the concept – is the feared phenomenon that the Internet would stratify society into groups of people who only shared or read news that already fits with their political or societal beliefs, while blocking out anything that might challenge their way of thinking.

According to Facebook’s study, that ain’t so.

Here’s what Manjoo says of the study:
But here’s Bakshy’s most crucial finding: Although we’re more likely to share information from our close friends, we still share stuff from our weak ties—and the links from those weak ties are the most novel links on the network. Those links from our weak ties, that is, are most likely to point to information that you would not have shared if you hadn’t seen it on Facebook. The links from your close ties, meanwhile, more likely contain information you would have seen elsewhere if a friend hadn’t posted it. These weak ties “are indispensible” to your network, Bakshy says. “They have access to different websites that you’re not necessarily visiting.”
Here’s a bit of explanation: Researcher Eytan Bakshy found – no surprises here – as he studied how people on Facebook share links that we tend to share links provided by those with whom we have strong ties, say co-workers, close friends, relatives, etc. He also discovered, as illustrated above, that we’re just as willing to share links from weak ties, and it’s from those weak ties that we’re most likely to read information that is outside our own echo chamber.

I’d be curious to read this study further, because I’ve got some strong-tie friends with whom I have widely differing beliefs, and I’m still as willing to read and share what they have to say as I am to share links from those whose beliefs are more like my own.

All of this shouldn’t come as a big surprise to anybody. The Internet has evolved into something that felt echo-chambery (in the early years of my own Internet delvings, I found lots of people interested in Watership Down or the Secret of NIMH as I built my own fan sites and such) at the beginning and now is changing into something that reflects society as a whole – a mish-mash of people connected by either weak or strong ties, sharing differing beliefs but united by at least some tenuous connection (that we graduated high school in the same year, that we like technology in that creepy Kip Dynamite fashion and such). Those weak ties keep us bound socially and, as a consequence, expose us to beliefs we may not hold dear. Of course, this doesn’t mean we’re reading and believing everything we see, but at least this research shows exposure to differing views, shattering once again the myth of the echo chamber.

So stock up on Facebook friends, even if they’re not near and dear to you – you’ll expand your view of the cosmos as you do it.

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