How connecting differs in person and on the web
In the space of a few hours earlier this week, I came upon two articles about human interaction that seemingly contradicted each other:
- "Opposites Don't Attract (And That's Bad News)," by Jonah Lehrer at Wired's Frontal Cortex blog
- "The End of the Echo Chamber," by Farhad Manjoo at Slate
In the former, Lehrer explains a newly released study that found that college students at larger universities have less diverse social groups than those at smaller universities. The conclusion drawn is that a larger environment allows the natural tendency toward seeking relationships with similar people to play out more thoroughly. As the study's authors put it, "Our findings reveal an irony—greater human diversity within an environment leads to less personal diversity."
Meanwhile, many experts have assumed that the boundless environment of the internet has allowed this same dynamic to turn the net into an "echo chamber," leaving us all increasingly isolated from differing people and viewpoints. The Slate article, however, points out a massive study conducted on Facebook that suggests the opposite is true: social networks (or at least Facebook) expose users to a large amount of novel information (i.e., ideas you most likely wouldn't have found on your own), because the vast majority of online social connections are weak ties. Simply put, the echo chamber theory doesn't appear to be true.
So, in person, opposites don't attract, but seemingly opposites do attract in the internet. The important difference between these scenarios is strength of connections. The former study examined the diversity in close personal relationships, while the latter examined the diversity in weak connections. Very different scenarios, and the evidence from each supports a fairly simple (and perhaps obvious) conclusion: strong relationships arise naturally from compatibility, while weak connections require less compatibility and thus allow for greater diversity.
So why might any of this be relevant to you as an association executive? I see a few lessons to draw, and while none of them are new or novel, the studies serve as important reminders and reinformcements of the following ideas:
Weak ties are conduits for knowledge sharing. My colleague Mark Athitakis asked "What's a Weak Tie Worth?" a few weeks ago and suggested that it might be difficult to turn weak ties into strong ones. I think both of these studies confirm that, but the Facebook study in particular further proves the great value in a large network of weak ties. Working to grow that network—and to help your members grow their weak-tie networks with each other—is a valuable goal in itself.
Growing diversity is another case for online social networking within your membership. Another reason to count the Facebook study in the "pro" column for engaging members through private online community platforms and on external social networks. It's not just a greater volume of connections that can be made online than in person; the online environment allows for the diversity of those connections to be higher, too. And we know that greater diversity in ideas and information being exchanged leads to better decisions, more innovation, and so on.
But just creating a diverse environment isn't enough. Particularly when it comes to your staff or your volunteer leadership, where weak ties that might exist need to be built into strong ties for effective work to be done. Getting a diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints in a room together is the right start, but human nature (sadly) will still resist the forming of diverse relationships unless they're fostered intentionally. Cross-functional teams, task forces, and committees must be created with purpose.
I'm curious if these studies align with your experience with your relationships and networks and those you see in your associations.