Weak Ties

by Darius Kazemi on November 3, 2005

in networking

Back in 2003, famed blogger Joi Ito wrote an article called Jobs and the Strength of Weak Ties. While you should definitely read the whole article (it’s short), the background is that there exists a strong/weak axis of personal ties.

Strong ties are your family, friends and other people you have strong bonds to. Weak ties are relationships that transcend local relationship boundaries both socially and geographically. [Granovetter] writes about the importance of weak ties in the flow of information and does a study of job hunting and shows that jobs are more often found through weak ties than through strong ties. [Joi Ito]

When I talk about building a vast personal network, I’m largely talking about weak ties. Weak ties make up a very, very large part of my network of contacts. If I listed everyone I know in the games industry with whom I feel a particularly close bond, that list would come out to about 10 people. If I listed my weak ties, I could give you about five dozen, maybe even more.

I guess I should explain the difference between strong and weak a little better. The best way I can put it is that my strong ties are with the kind of people whose couches I could crash on if I needed to. The weak ties are folks that I would feel comfortable emailing every now and then, and I might have lunch with them once a year if I happened to be in their hometown on business or on vacation. And of course, there’s all the people in between.

You cannot underestimate the strength and utility of weak ties.

Obviously, we’d all like to have a large network of nothing but strong ties. Then the whole world would be our family! (Actually, that’s kind of scary.) But while that’s a fine ideal to aspire to, we cannot underestimate the strength and utility of these weak ties. This whole series of articles is filled with examples of the positive results that come from my interaction with weak ties. I’ll give you another quick example of the very simplest use of the weak tie: identification.

[Begin vignette.]

I’m at an interview, being interviewed by someone I’ve never met before. “So you told me you’ve been with this company for a year,” I say, because I take care to listen when networking. “Where were you before this? What did you do?”

“Oh, I worked as a designer at Company Y,” she says.

“Really? Do happen to know Joe Smith?”

“Oh yes, he’s a very nice guy,” she says.

“Yeah, he definitely is. I’ll tell you, though, I could never get over his fixation with NASCAR.”

Laughter is elicited. The laughter of recognition and identification.

[End vignette.]

Okay, so the trick to the above vignette is that I don’t know Joe Smith very well at all. We spoke for 20 minutes while waiting in line for a lecture at GDC. But that was enough to make him a weak tie. And because I take notes on every conversation I ever have at a conference, and because I review these notes before I go to an interview, I was able to make a nonexistent connection (between myself and the interviewer) a little bit stronger.

Weak ties are great because

  • they take relatively little effort to maintain.
  • you can have a lot of them, which greatly increases your chance of meeting someone random and knowing their coworkers.
  • they are easy to build, at first. If you do one really nice favor for a weak tie, or they do a favor for you, you have probably doubled the strength of your tie to that person. Note that, like XP from level 1 adventures, returns diminish over time!

The Tools of Weak Ties

It’s easy to keep track of strong ties. I remember my best friend’s email address. I can talk to him whenever I want. What’s hard is keeping track of weak ties. This is why it’s very important to take good notes.

There are also tons of software tools out there that help you maintain a personal network. Some are more specialized than others. One tool that’s used fairly extensively in the game industry is LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a social networking tool, specifically built for business networking. Join up, see if it’s your cup of tea. It isn’t perfect–I have far fewer contacts on LinkedIn than I do in real life. But it’s a nice way of seeing how connected people really are. At the present time, I only have 13 people I’m connected to directly. These are the folks that I’m friends with, who I sent a message and asked to connect to me. But I have 600 people who are connected to me through those 13! And LinkedIn has features built in that allow your intermediaries to introduce you to their friends. Hey, if you join up, search for me and add me as a connection. Say you read my blog. I’ll be impressed.


Peter Bessman November 15, 2007 at 6:41 am

You’ve got a request on linked in :)

Max Nichols June 10, 2010 at 11:52 am

I’m just curious what your present thoughts on LinkedIn are. I myself find it more useful with each passing day, as it gets more feature-rich, iterates it’s design, and – most importantly – gets more and more people signed up.

At the time of this writing, you said you had 13 connections there. Well, now, 5 years later, you have some ridiculous number. 600, maybe? Would you say it’s become an even more essential tool? Do you find it more personally useful now than you did at the time of writing this article?

Also, do you have any thoughts on Facebook as a professional networking tool? I’ve met some devs who prefer it, but I myself prefer LinkedIn. If someone has a LinkedIn account, you know that it exists purely for the purpose of professional networking. But a facebook profile? Eh, you can never be sure that they actually want to use it for that purpose, unless they invite you first, or you end up close friends. I have no qualms about using it for professional networking, but it’s too ambiguous of a space for me to ever initiate it there.

Darius Kazemi June 10, 2010 at 12:03 pm

I use LinkedIn to search for people and find out what their jobs are and their work history. I also use it for introductions sometimes. And I like the regular updates of who in my network has a new job or whatnot.

But to be honest I don’t spend a lot of time with LinkedIn…. I should look at it more closely!

As for Facebook, I don’t know WHAT it’s for anymore :P. But like you, I don’t ever initiate professional networking there, I only respond to stuff if someone else initiates.

Sewana April 22, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Walking in the prescnee of giants here. Cool thinking all around!

Zachary Pittman February 6, 2014 at 5:47 pm

I found a link to this series on Reddit recently. So far it has been very insightful. You will see my invitation to connect soon.

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