Ties that bind

Researching how people get jobs and make business contacts, sociologist Mark Granovetter turned up some surprising conclusions back in 1973.

perspective Researching how people get jobs and make business contacts, sociologist Mark Granovetter turned up some surprising conclusions back in 1973.

The conventional assumption that the most useful connections would be found through strong personal ties to friends, relatives and longtime colleagues turned out to be wrong.

In fact, he concluded, people more frequently get jobs because of acquaintances, friends of friends, or fellow alumni. This is partly because most folks have far more weak ties than strong. At the same time, Granovetter noted, "close friends know the same people you do, whereas acquaintances are better bridges to new contacts and nonredundant information."

Fast-forward 32 years, and a host of companies have sprung up to help all of us expand our network of weak ties. Most likely you have received at least a few invitations to join someone or other's social network. And at least some of these invitations may have been from people you barely know. A month after accepting one of these invitations, I was surprised to learn that I was linked to more than 1,438,500 people. Twenty-one of these were people that I knew personally. The other 1,438,479 were friends of friends, or acquaintances of acquaintances of acquaintances of the original 21.

Will this new breed of instant social network, consisting of massive numbers of very weak ties, prove to be of real value? Are people likely to respond positively to job recommendations or business introductions spawned by these services? Fans say yes, but a few critics now argue that, by making weak ties so easy to form, these new social networks might actually reduce the value of weak ties.

I predict that the underlying technological tools will be of far less importance than either the boosters or doomsayers claim.

Though there are certainly some people who are misusing these new tools to send "acquaintance spam" to everyone in their address book, this situation should correct itself over time. Every new technology has an etiquette learning curve. Eventually, we learn not to talk on cell phones in movie theaters or forward e-mail "virus warnings." Similarly, we need to learn that the level of trust in a tie is crucial, and that simply having a business card from someone we met at a conference three years ago doesn't entitle us to much trust.

Before you try to invite people into your social network, ask yourself: "What level of trust does this person have in their relationship with me? Do I know anything about them beyond their name?" If not, your invitation can quickly come off as a nuisance. You are more likely to get a favorable response if you personalize your correspondence and provide context for the relationship.

Perhaps more importantly, consider first using technology to strengthen your existing ties. While much of the technology introduced during the past 10 years has made it easier to connect to information and businesses, maintaining meaningful connections to individuals has arguably become harder. Most of us now have at least eight contact points (phones, e-mail, work and home addresses, IM, VoIP handles, etc.) that are frequently changing; our friends and colleagues are in the same situation.

Fortunately, there is emerging technology that can help with that problem, so that when you "reach out to touch someone," you know how, where and when to best reach them--and vice versa. And, since you know how to reach people, try reaching out before you need something. Technology makes it easy to order a gift to congratulate your ex-colleague on his or her new job, or to send an e-card on your college roommate's birthday.

Social networking technology is a great tool. But, like most powerful tools, it can be misused. If you value your relationships, remember that the true strength of most relationships is determined by the content of the relationship and the effort invested by both parties, rather than the mechanism that established the relationship in the first place.

Ben Golub is president and CEO of Plaxo, which provides an online service for managing contact information.