Michael Wu, Ph.D. is Lithium's Principal Scientist of Analytics, digging into the complex dynamics of social interaction and group behavior in online communities and social networks.
Michael was voted a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine for his work on predictive social analytics and its application to Social CRM.He's a regular blogger on the Lithosphere's Building Community blog and previously wrote in the Analytic Science blog. You can follow him on Twitter at mich8elwu.
Konnichiwa! Greetings from Japan. I’ve just returned from a two-week vacation in Japan, so I want to write about a travel related topic today. I want to share with you a social/relationship phenomenon that I’ve observed from my previous travels. I will be using the concept of tie strength from my last post, so if you haven’t read last week’s post on “Figuring Out the Relationship Puzzle,” I recommend taking a quick skim through before proceeding.
Have you ever gone backpacking? I was an avid backpacker during my grad school days. I would save up for the whole year and then backpack for three to four weeks during off-peak seasons to a country that I’ve never been to before. It was a great experience that I now miss very much since I don’t have the luxury of taking three to four weeks off anymore.
When I backpack, I mainly travel alone; but occasionally, I would travel with a friend. What I find interesting is the different interaction I had with the locals when I travel alone vs. when I travel with a buddy. When I travel alone, I interact with the local residents much more. Duh! There is no one else. If I interact at all, it would have to be with the local people. But I also interact with them at a much deeper level. With some of them, I’ve kept in contact for years. But, when I travel with a friend, my interactions with the locals are much shallower. Even when I spend a lot of time with them, I tend to identify with my travel buddy and vice versa. Consequently, our conversations with the native residents are often superficial at best. Let’s try to analyze this situation and see what we can learn from it in terms of social CRM.
The Relativity of Tie Strength
Last week we explored the topic of relationship from a sociologist’s perspective, and we discussed the four components (i.e. time, intensity, trust, and reciprocity) that contribute directly to the strength of a relationship. So we can now quantify and compare the strength between relationships. However, humans usually have difficult time thinking in absolute terms, especially with abstract concepts that are intangible, such as relationships. Therefore when we speak of weak ties and strong ties, they are in relative terms; and they are relative to our engagement circle.
Your engagement circle consists of the people that you can engage with easily (i.e. people whom you can focus your attention on with little to no effort). In the real world, your engagement circle would be the people in your immediate surroundings that you can simply open your mouth and talk to. If you are on the phone then, your engagement circle is the one person on the other side of the phone (assuming it is not a conference call with many people). In the online world, however, your engagement circle consists of people that you can access easily without switching platforms. So your engagement circle on Facebook consists of your FB friends, and if you are in a community, then it consists of other members of the same community.
When I was traveling with my buddy, the relationship between my buddy and I would be considered a strong tie compare to the relatively weaker ties between me and the local residents. That is because my friend and the locals are the extent of the people that I can engage with when I am backpacking. However, back home when I am with some of my lifelong friends, immediate families, and close relatives, my travel buddy may only be a weak tie compare to these much stronger relationships that I can engage with when I am at home.
The Attention Economics
A strong tie between two persons means that they will have a stronger affinity for each other. By definition it means there is more trust, more reciprocity, greater emotional intensity (greater sense of closeness) between them, and they will want to spend more time with each other. Therefore stronger relationships will draw more attention than weaker one. I guess that is why the relationship became strong in the first place.
However, attention, like time and money, is a scarce and limited resource for everyone. You can’t be everyone’s best friend. Humans simply don’t have the time and cognitive capacity to do that, at least not all at once in the same place at the same time. By spending more time with one person, you will have less time to spare for another. If you try to jam everyone into the same time slot, then the level of engagement with everyone will simply be very shallow, and you will never get very close to anyone in particular. So within your engagement circle, individuals with different tie strength are constantly competing for your limited attention, creating an attention economy.
When all things are equal, the strongest tie will win over the others. Therefore in the presence of strong relationships, weak ties are harder to develop due to the reduction of attention. However, weaker ties may occasionally win some attention due to contextual and extrinsic factors, such as urgency, easiness, arousal, interest, etc.
So when I was on a trip with my travel buddy, our strong relationship inadvertently drew my attention away from engaging with the local residents. Not only did it draw away time, it also drew away the emotional intensity that is often required to carry on a deeper conversation. But when I was traveling alone, there are no strong ties in my engagement circle that would distract my attention. And since my tie strengths with the native residents are virtually all zero (I don’t know anyone there), I can devote all of my attention towards building relationships with them. As a result, stronger ties can naturally develop.
The principle of attention economy explains why it is often much easier to make new friends when you move to a new town or switch to a new jobs, but harder to make friends in a group of already very close friends. However, it is definitely possible to break into a group of already well-connected friends. After all, I was able to make some friends with the local residents during my lonesome backpacking trips. You just have to try harder to find a time when they are not actively engaged, or else you will have to overcome the attentional demands from their close friends.
So what have we learned today? Two very important concepts: one about relativity, and the other about economics.
The perception of tie strength is relative to our immediate engagement circle.
During an active engagement within our engagement circle, there is an attention economy that governs who we are likely to engage with and at what level we will interact.
Strong relationships demands greater attention, so that in the presence of strong relationships, weak ties are harder to develop.
Weak ties can win some small amount of attention though contextual and extrinsic factors that is beyond the tie strength.
Alright, I hope this post will lay the foundation for some interesting investigation about how relationships work later. Like relativity in physics and economics, the relativity of tie strength and the attention economics can explain many of the observed phenomena in social media today. I will try to cover some of these topics for the posts in the next few weeks. In the mean time, comments and critiques are always welcome. See you next time.