The New Twitter Conversation: Weak Ties that Bind
A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men
- Herman Melville
Twitter recently announced an update to their web and mobile apps intended to make it easier to follow conversations. It is clearly a response to the difficulties people have experienced attempting to exchange ideas or reactions with one another in real-time. In fact, we don’t normally consider exchanges, other than the seldom-utilized direct message feature on twitter, the same way we consider communicating for example—and not a very good example, at that—with “friends” on Facebook.
Your Facebook page, for example, is populated partially by friends you actually know, some people you used to know, and some people you know about through other people in your network, which may lead to a kind of social triangle involving interpersonal interactions. Of course, we know that for people who have hundreds of friends on Facebook, some of those social ties are not very strong, as it is possible that most of the “friends” in your network are not people with whom you are directly or indirectly socially connected. In other words, they are not your friends or friends of your friends; they are what may be characterized as weak connections.
Social connections, especially weak ones, become more important when it comes to Twitter where you don’t have friends, but rather have followers, and in turn you may follow others, but those you follow may not be your friends. The only indication this is a social, i.e. interpersonal, network is through the rarely utilized direct message feature where one Twitter follower may communicate directly with another. This should suggest that the Twitter network is based on weaker social ties.
These weak connections would imply that social media are not really very social, if social means or requires interpersonal--read that as direct--communication. However, there is an interesting theory from the late 1960s—The Strength of Weak Ties—that is regaining traction in the age of new and emerging social media. Social media allow for, if not encourage, the development of weaker ties, because such ties lack constraints that friendship requires. This phenomenon is manifest through the use of hashtags originally on Twitter and more recently on Facebook. Hashtags are merely a way to identify a particular topic, as in the recent instance where the U.S. Congress did not vote to fund the government, resulting in a barrage of activity that took place on social media. Individuals are tweeting using various hashtags, including one promoted by the Today show on NBC – #DearCongress. You can see in the mentionmapp the very loose connections between the organizations that are tweeting and individuals who are using the hashtag, #DearCongress.
What this should suggest is that people who tweet with the hashtag #DearCongress constitute an amorphous group bound by an issue, not a relationship; twitter may serve to frame the discussion. In other words individuals tweeting #DearCongress are not necessarily friends, and they are not necessarily connected through direct communication or strong ties exhibited through direct communication. Rather, the amorphous groups that come together for a period of time around a public issue are based on weak ties. Again, this isn’t all bad if you consider Mark Granovetter’s theory of the strength of weak ties. In fact, weak social ties are preferred when it comes to public outcries on Twitter, because such expressions don’t stress relationships. Tweeting is not about establishing or maintaining trust, as people who don’t know one another don’t have to trust one another. Furthermore, there is little to be gained socially by tweeting, because there are few opportunities to physically meet and little opportunity to directly communicate with another individual when tweeting to an amorphous group. The lack of constricting qualities that we associate with friendship and direct social communication are absent from tweets.
Perhaps the ultimate example of the ways in which Twitter can fuel a social movement through weak ties comes from the Arab Spring of 2011. During the Egyptian uprising there were more than 1 million tweets that some suggest provided motivation to join the movement. However, and I think this illustrates the difference between strong and weak ties, despite 1 million tweets, much smaller clusters formed around specific traditional news organizations Al Arabiya and Al-Jazeera. In other words, Twitter served to disseminate information, not so much the congealing of networks of interconnected individuals e.g. friends. I should point out that social media serve two structural functions: information dissemination and direct communication. In the case of Arab Spring, social media’s primary role may have been framing the discussion. I don’t want to dismiss that as unimportant; however, I do want to stress the difference between direct communication and information dissemination. According to a study by Rob Schroeder, Sean Everton and Russell Shepher, Mining Twitter Data from the Arab Spring, one of the most influential Twitter accounts, under the handle Hosni Mubarak, was a fake account.
Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Outliers among other popular books, maintains that in order to create political, social or cultural change, strong connections are essential. But I think Gladwell is quite incorrect on this point, as we have entered into a new age in which social movements are created through weak connections, solidarity in fact is not based on one’s social connection (friendship) to others within the social network. This represents a radical departure from the way we look at and in the future will look at the ways in which transformative change is created through new and emerging social media. Twitter’s approach to conversations may not serve the purpose Twitter intended, as the strength of social movements is through weak connections, because proximity, trust and incentive to connect based on friendship no longer matter.
Neil Alperstein, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Communication at Loyola University Maryland and founding Director of the M.A. in Emerging Media program. He researches our imaginary social world including our dreams, fantasies and imaginary social relationships we have with media figures. His current research looks at the ways in which social media impact those imaginary relationships.
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