How Strong Are Your Weak Ties?

I asked my 16-year-old daughter how many friends she had on Facebook the other day. She has over 1,000. Her wall is littered with updates from people with whom she has no real connection and in whom she has no real interest.

So what then is the point?

When I asked her how many people are really her friends or, at least acquaintances, that number quickly dropped down to a more manageable level, well below what is known as the Dunbar Number.

I haven’t done the primary research (very few of us do anymore) but Malcolm Gladwell popularized the Dunbar Number in his book The Tipping Point. Simply stated, the Dunbar Number defines the upper limit of the number of individuals we can have in a coherent social network — a network where we know how each member fits with us, as well as with each other. We know who is allied with whom, who hates who, etc. There is some debate as to what exactly that upper limit is but 150 seems to be the consensus.

Now, let’s apply that to the current professional social network of choice, LinkedIn. As you send an invitation out on LinkedIn, you’ll see a message on the bottom of the invitation screen that says “Important: Only invite people you know well and who know you.”

You know what? That is important. It’s important because the real power of a social network is in the weak ties it creates between two members who don’t have a direct connection with each other but do have a connection with a third member. For example, if you know Sally and I know Sally, by definition we share a connection, albeit weak, with each other. But, it only works if you and I both really know Sally.

If we do, we have the potential to transform the weak tie we share into a strong one. That’s a really powerful business tool and one we’ve been using offline for hundreds of years. I call Sally looking for a referral to an employment lawyer, you happen to be an employment lawyer, she introduces me to you. Presto, strong tie created. In an ideal world, sites like LinkedIn allow us to more efficiently organize and share our strong ties and, in turn, create new and productive connections between people we respect and trust, or at least KNOW.

But, when we accept every invitation that comes our way, whether we know the person or not, then these opportunities quickly dissipate. Have you ever received a LinkedIn request from one of your connections asking for an introduction to another and you have to admit to yourself and them that you can’t make the intro because you really don’t know the person? I know I have. When you get to that point, LinkedIn no longer acts as a social networking site but rather as a personal branding or personal advertising site, much like it is for 90% of my daughter’s Facebook friends. She isn’t interacting with them in a meaningful way but rather observing them in the same way we do with celebrities in People Magazine.

Now, we all have our reasons for wanting to expand our number of 1st Connections on LinkedIn. For me, it gives me access to more potential candidates for the searches I’m working on. For the job seeker, it expands the number of potential employers who will have access to their profile. But, when you have more than 800 connections, as I do, you start to find that you can only credibly refer a small percentage of those people in a sincere and meaningful way, defeating the explicit intent of making the connection in the first place.

So, the next time a LinkedIn invitation arrives in your inbox, at least ask yourself the question, “Would I be comfortable referring this person to another member of my network?” If not, you may have to be satisfied with the same terms my daughter accepts – knowing that one of her connections can’t sleep because she’s going to a Justin Bieber concert tomorrow.

John Touey
John is a Principal and member of the SSG management team. He has over 20 years of experience providing executive search, human resources and management consulting services to a broad range of organizations and industries including healthcare, financial services, utilities, manufacturing and pharmaceuticals. You can follow John Touey at @JohnTouey on Twitter.

2 Responses to 'How Strong Are Your Weak Ties?'

  1. Good day John. I hope you are well. I agree with your points in this article. I have over 800 connections and do ask myself the question you describe prior to accepting new invitations.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    JoAnn L. Edwards
    Growing companies and employees by keeping my eye on the puck!

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  1. […] trust and would be comfortable referring to other connections.  And, as I noted in my first-ever blog, referral functionality decreases exponentially when you don’t have strong relationships within […]

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