If an algorithm like EdgeRank favors information that you’d have seen anyway, it would make Facebook an echo chamber of your own beliefs. But if EdgeRank pushes novel information through the network, Facebook becomes a beneficial source of news rather than just a reflection of your own small world.
That’s exactly what Bakshy found. His paper is heavy on math and network theory, but here’s a short summary of his results. First, he found that the closer you are with a friend on Facebook—the more times you comment on one another’s posts, the more times you appear in photos together, etc.—the greater your likelihood of sharing that person’s links. At first blush, that sounds like a confirmation of the echo chamber: We’re more likely to echo our closest friends.
But here’s Bakshy’s most crucial finding: Although we’re more likely to share information from our close friends, we still share stuff from our weak ties—and the links from those weak ties are the most novel links on the network. Those links from our weak ties, that is, are most likely to point to information that you would not have shared if you hadn’t seen it on Facebook. The links from your close ties, meanwhile, more likely contain information you would have seen elsewhere if a friend hadn’t posted it. These weak ties “are indispensible” to your network, Bakshy says. “They have access to different websites that you’re not necessarily visiting.”
The fact that weak ties introduce us to novel information wouldn’t matter if we only had a few weak ties on Facebook. But it turns out that most of our relationships on Facebook are pretty weak, according to Bakshy’s study. Even if you consider the most lax definition of a “strong tie”—someone from whom you’ve received a single message or comment—most people still have a lot more weak ties than strong ones. And this means that, when considered in aggregate, our weak ties—with their access to novel information—are the most influential people in our networks. Even though we’re more likely to share any one thing posted by a close friend, we have so many more mere acquaintances posting stuff that our close friends are all but drowned out.
I haven’t had a chance to really think about this properly, but it bolsters one idea we push pretty hard in Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World, that “network relationship building” – not just individual relationship building – is a crucial skill we need to develop in our employees. More on this later, but read the Slate article and see what you think. Really interesting stuff.