Why do blogs have such a large social influence, given that the total
number of active bloggers is tiny relative to the number of human
beings on the planet?
Many years ago the sociologist Mark Granoveter wrote a seminal article
on the special import of “weak ties”–the links among people that are
not closely bonded–as being critical for spreading ideas and for
helping people join together for action. Granovetter, M. (1973), “The Strength of Weak Ties,” American Journal of Sociology, 78 (6): 1360-1380.
This article and its simple but profound idea helped
stimulate an academic movement of rich analysis of networks, ranging
from neurology to social movements. The best book I know
summarizing this science and its relevance to social change and social
capital formation is Nexus, by Mark Buchanan.
Here is a passage from the book, where Buchanan discusses the “it’s a small
world” “Kevin Bacon six degrees of separation” phenomena, and how it is
related to weak ties. Buchanan features both Harvard social psychologist Stanley Milgram,
who studied the six degrees phenomena many years ago, and the Cornell
mathematicians who are leading this study today, Duncan Watts and
Stanley Strogatz (D. Watts and S. Strogatz. Collective dynamics of small-world networks. Nature, 363:202–204, 1998. Citations.):
So let’s go back to a circle of six billion, the world’s population,
with each person linked to his or her nearest 50 neighbors. In
the ordered network, the number of degrees of separation is something
like 60 million–this being the number of steps it takes, even moving
50 at a time, to go halfway around the circle. Throw in a few
random links, however, and this number comes crashing down.
According to Watts and Strogatz’s calculations, even if the fraction of
new random links is only 2 out of 10,000, the number of degrees of
separation drops from 60 million to about 8; if the fracton is 3 out of
10,000, it falls to 5. Meanwhile, the random links, being so few
in number, have no noteceable effect on the degree of local clustering
that makes social networks what they are.
These small world networks work magic. From a conceptual point of
view, they reveal how it is possible to wire up a social world so as to
get only six degrees of separation, while still permitting the richly
clustered and intertwined social structure of of groups and communities
that we see in the real world. (Buchanan, Nexus, page 55)
We want to spread good ideas and
creative new relationships across society. One
example, the Dean campaign. We sometimes talk about “social capital” (to use Bob Putnam’s term)
as a kind of
measure of progressive interconnection among citizens. We can’t enhance
by working only within our closest relationships and network. We
to spread ideas into new social networks that are not initially
connected closely to us, and we need to find ways to collaborate
with people who are new to us. We need to connect to many
different social worlds.
We can best connect to other social worlds through the social shortcuts of weak ties, by which we engage folks that
are not necessarily that close to us initially–e.g. Uncle Albert, or an old high school friend, or
someone we know at work, at the dry cleaners, or where we have our car repaired. These bridge persons may not be that
emotionally close to the people we hope to reach on the other end of the
connection, either–but the value of bridging is that the relationship may be just strong
enough, as a social tie, to spread an idea or enable a new connection
Blogs have a special social relevance because they allow their bloggers
create and maintain a network of weak social ties. The network of
weak ties that a blogger can sustain is open to all comers, and is
potentially vast and highly diverse (as diverse as the web
itself–which of couse is not diverse enough, but is more diverse than,
say, academic journals). Blogs are weak tie machines!
Anyone (you!) can read my
If my ideas seem relevant to you, you can take them and
plant them within your local, strong-bonded social network. Of
course, if you are a blogger, you can also spread them across your own
blog-based weak ties–and thus diffuse the ideas even farther.
Blogging helps us expand and maintain a large number of loose
ties. And loose ties, to go back to Granovetter’s point,
are the vital links for social progress. Social progress may be
(oversimply, of course) defined as the spread of good ideas across
society, and the combination and recombination of people into new
groups that can take collective action.
Finally, a good thing about weak social ties is that it appears to be
difficult to exert conventional social pressure across such ties.
It is hard to “pressure” someone into agreeing with an idea or an
action. Loose ties are voluntary. Thus ideas and actions
that grow across networks of weak ties can perhaps be presumed to be
better vetted by each person–based on merit rather than
coercion. Perhaps this process of individual discernment helps
filter out bad ideas seeking to spread across the network of loose
ties. Perhaps this filtering in turn contributes to collective wisdom
being developed across the loose-tie long distance network as a whole,
and thus also within the strong-tie local communities at the edges.
Finally, if we really want to understand the effect of blogging and
bloggers, we need to study the conversion of ideas into face-to-face
community organization. This is the move I think of as “from netroots
to grassroots” and that is my present passion.
PS: A special hello, with this piece, to my colleagues at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, who cross the worlds of law, academics, and the web–and to Kaye Trammell at Florida State, one of the most visible and weak-tie-maintaining academics who are focused on blogging and society.