Weak links and social leakage

This weekend I was reading a very interesting article in NewScientist about social networks and weak ties – those we know, but not as well as our inner circle of friends. A few interesting facts about weak ties:

  1. A significant proportion of us get our jobs from weak tie relationships
    (American Journal of Sociology, Vol 78, P1360)
  2. Studies have shown that weak ties provide benefits to our health and happiness
  3. Social networking tools have allowed the number of weak ties we maintain to explode – from a few dozen into the hundreds.
  4. Cognitive capacity to manage weak ties and stronger social relationships may be limited to far less than the number of ties we can easily form
    (How Many Friends Does One Person Need?, Robin Dunbar)

So, weak ties are definitely useful to us, and are becoming easier and easier to build. Many of us are taking this to extremes, with Facebook and LinkedIn allowing us to build networks of hundreds, which in turn connect us within a degree or two to thousands.

But I’m not entirely convinced that weak ties are well supported on current social networking sites. On most we can have a public and private profile, and our contacts get to see the private one – but we don’t yet seem to have Public, Private and ‘Weak ties’. If I post photos to my profile for my family to see, then business contacts get to see them too.

More importantly though, there is the problem of social leakage. Yes, I know that sounds icky, but hear me out.

Social leakage is where you share information with your network, unaware of the fact that someone in your network is connected to someone you have explicitly excluded.

Recently I’ve had two cases of social leakage come to my attention. The first was a woman who discovered that a friend of hers was also friends with a friend of her ex husband. She was made uncomfortably aware of this when she discovered her ex husband had been looking at photos of her on a night out.

In another case, the daughter of a couple is friends with a school girl who is also friends with the boyfriend of the husband’s ex wife. This allowed the ex wife and boyfriend to view photos of their family on a day out, and to read comments that were – in this context – embarrassing.

As the number of weak ties we create grows, this problem is only going to get worse. You don’t know who the friends of your weak ties friends will be, and as of right now we don’t have tools sophisticated enough to deal with the potential social fallout.

This is something we need to concentrate on, and soon.

Gary Bunker

the Fore