Paul Adams on the Real Life Social Network

Strong ties, weak ties, and latent ties.

466 words

Paul Adams, a member of the user experience team at Google and the user research lead for social, recently gave the below presentation at the Voices That Matter: Web Design Conference:

It’s worth reading through the entire thing, but there were a few groups of slides I found particularly clear/insightful/interesting (you can jump to a particular slide from the bottom toolbar) —

  • social contexts: 15, 58, 71, 83, 181, 212
  • evolution of the web: 19
  • status updates: 145, 179
  • memory and information: 150, 152
  • influence: 158, 159, 171, 172
  • privacy: 193, 198, 199, 204

There are lots of other useful ideas in there, but there’s one in particular on which I want to expand. Adams discusses the categorization of our relationships into strong ties and weak ties, saying that, “Strong ties are the people you care about most. Your best friends. Your family. People often refer to strong ties as their “circle of trust.‘ […] Weak ties are people you know, but don’t care much about. Your friends’ friends. Some people you met recently. Typically, we communicate with weak ties infrequently.” Adams then goes on to define a new type of relationship online, the temporary tie, for “people that you have no recognized relationship with, but that you temporarily interact with,” such as strangers in public online social spaces.

He also discusses the cognitive limitations of the human brain that make us unable to stay up-to-date with more than 150 weak ties at a time (see Dunbar’s number). Given that we now have social tools for keeping track of many more people than that — Facebook ‘friendship’ seems to be for “everyone I know and don’t actively dislike”1 — I wanted one additional term to help me think about the portion of my 859 Facebook friends with whom I wasn’t keeping up at all and had some sort of tie that was weaker than a weak tie.

Latent ties seems to work nicely here, for those people with whom I’m not at all in touch but also have not forgotten, and who could potentially become a bigger part of my life and replace one of my weak ties. This is a new type of tie — it used to be possible to have no way to contact someone I once knew but hadn’t heard from in years, and these new tools will prevent this from ever again being the case. I think it’s especially important to design for these latent relationships on Facebook/other websites where there are social stigmas around friending and unfriending that make it difficult for the user to keep her ‘friends list’ as an accurate representation of only her current strong and/or weak ties.

  1. Who was it that first said this? Please let me know if you have a source for that quote.