Thursday, March 31, 2011

The "Arab Spring"

The paper that I referred to in my previous post also has a remarkable prediction of the Twitter revolutions that we are seeing in the Middle East and North Africa. Sternberg (1980) found that the sudden connection of previously unattached individuals or small groups can lead to widespread protest. Sound familiar? I think the introduction of Facebook and other social networking has allowed lots of small communities that were all oppressed but isolated to become suddenly connected. And just what Sternberg predicted came to pass.

But he also predicted that sustaining the protest requires strong ties within the group. If the protesters in Egypt, Libya, etc. don’t develop strong ties, then it remains to be seen if they can keep up the momentum needed to create working democracies. In Egypt, luckily Mubarak stepped down quickly. But a new dictator can easily step in if society lets its guard down. In Libya, a lot more dedication will be necessary. Even with NATO’s no fly zone, the Libyans will have to get a lot more organized if they want to take Tripoli.

The power of weak ties

Today I read an old sociology paper that has some very interesting insights that are remarkably relevant today. The paper is from 1983 and yet it predicts some of the benefits, challenges, and implications of the spread of social networks on the web. The basic premise is that our close friends (or close coworkers) tend to all know each other. This creates dense networks that tend to assimilate with each other. The benefits of diverse thinking (as I have blogged about previously) are lost.

But some people have weak ties to other groups. These weak ties can be either acquaintances of acquaintances (and therefore not very useful) or what he calls local bridging ties which connect groups that have complementary skills, knowledge, or other important attribute. Local bridging ties create many benefits for individuals, organizations, and societies.

Individuals benefit through upward mobility. Weak ties can help out with job searches, mobility, and developing extensive professional and social networks.

Organizations benefit because weak ties facilitate the diffusion of innovation, ideas, and tacit company practices. They loosen up cliques that can hurt morale and lower productivity. They allow companies to develop stronger links to other companies in the value chain. Weak ties can create a nice balance between specialized division of labor and interdisciplinary work and innovation.

For societies, weak ties allow subgroups to integrate without assimilating. They create macrosocial cohesion. It helps to diffuse things that are controversial (as illustrated by how fast dirty jokes and urban myths spread despite not being covered in the media).

I can see some recommendations coming out of this.

· Individuals should find and nurture weak ties that are bridging to higher status and diverse groups.

· Organizations should create a culture with dense clusters within departments and weak ties that provide local bridges between them. This maximizes the tradeoff between specialization and interdisciplinary innovation.

· Organizations/communities should develop/nurture several ways for individuals to establish weak bridging ties. This increases the chance they will develop naturally, which is important because you can’t effectively force weak ties on people in either context.

The paper also describes some benefits of strong ties and how the balance is important. But I will let you read the paper to get these.