A few weeks ago, I found myself at Chicago’s New Wave Cafe in the very hip, artsy neighborhood of Logan Square. After ordering my requisite sandwich and coffee, I searched for a table. It was the lunchtime hour, and the place was packed. So I did what any normal person does: I walked up to a girl who was sitting by herself at a two-top table, and I asked if I could join her. She sat behind her laptop, with a smartphone and KindleFire on either side of her. “Sure,” she said, removing her headphones only slightly. As I went to sit down, I noticed that she, like many folks at this cafe, had Facebook open. But the profile she was viewing belonged to me.
Creepiness turned to intrigue, and I decided to inquire. “Hey, um, that Facebook profile you’re looking at…is me,” I said, laughing awkwardly. Turns out that we’re Facebook friends. She’s a Facebook friend I had added when I was covering art in Chicago and frequently received friend requests from local artists. We had mutual friends. I soon found out that her name was Jen, she was an artist, and she lived in the neighborhood. She told me that my stories frequently appeared in her news feed. We chatted about the local art scene, I ate my sandwich, and then we parted ways. A few weeks later, at that very same cafe, I ran into Jen again. We sat across from each other – I read emails, she googled images of hearts. I shared a few links of art that I thought she might like to her Facebook wall. I checked out her Facebook wall and discovered a great New York Times article about the new “groupthink” and how solitude inspires creativity. The next day, Jen started showing up in my Facebook news feed. I hope I run into her again.
Today the Facebook Data Team released a curious new study called “Rethinking Information Diversity in Networks”. The Facebook data scientists found that even though people were more likely to consume and share information from people they interacted with frequently (close ties), most information came from people they didn’t actually know well (weak ties). They tied this study to economic sociologist Mark Granovetter’s 1973 paper, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” which suggests it’s easier to find a job through weak ties than strong ties. That’s because, in such close-knit social circles, information travels quickly and opportunities are snatched up fast. New opportunities arise in the least likely of places.
The data scientists mention homophyly in their report, nothing that individuals with similar characteristics associate with one another. In online social networks such as Facebook, people with strong ties tend to have the same interests and visit similar sites, whereas people with weak ties explore different sites. Weak ties, however, spread information that people wouldn’t normally see – which can, in turn lead to new types of knowledge. Taken collectively, weak ties offer information that’s different from the homogenous information shared by strong ties in one’s immediate social network. So what if more weak ties started popping up in your Facebook news feed?
Which brings me back to Jen and the importance of friending strangers. For all intents and purposes, Jen is a weak tie. Even though we have 58 mutual friends, she is did not become a frequent popper-upper in my news feed until after our random run-in.
Not long ago, Jimmy Kimmel declared National Unfriend Day on Facebook. Social network haters loved it. I argued against this idea, precisely because, for most, Facebook is not a social network of close ties – it is a web of people one has known through various parts of their life.
If the news feed improves its sorting algorithms and people stop stalking their ex’s, Facebook could expand from a space people use to be themselves and feel a part of something to a truly phenomenal way to discover news and information. But it will only work if you start friending strangers.