By Rick Bookstaber
(originally posted on rick.bookstaber.com)
“I know a guy…”
I don’t know the business model for the company, and don’t have any basis to comment on its long-term prospects, but in a somewhat stream-of-consciousness mode, I hear the “linked” in LinkedIn, and it starts me thinking about network theory, and the place LinkedIn most naturally fills in that space, which is to establish weak links.
In particular, LinkedIn is an application of a theory the sociologist Mark Granovetter proposed in a 1973 paper. Granovetter looked at how job seekers used their social connections in their search. He came up with the surprising finding that the most valuable networking contacts in a job search are not from the ranks of close relationships, but rather from casual acquaintances and those known only indirectly through others.
The reason these second-order relationships, which he calls weak ties and which network theory refers to as weak links, are so valuable in the job search is that they have information that is outside the sphere of the tighter circle of friends. That is, when it comes to job opportunities, your close associates are likely to know pretty much the same things that you know already, and for that matter, any one of them is likely to know most of what any other one knows. After all, you are close because you work in similar jobs, went to the same schools, live in the same neighborhood. But the weak links extend your reach to opportunities that you and your strong links do not know.
If LinkedIn is successful in helping to create and exploit weak links, it also can be effective in fostering group action. Just as a job search depends more on weak links than on one’s immediate group, so political action depends on weak links to spread the word and enlist broad action. This is true whether the means of communication is word of mouth, leaflets or the Internet. Granovetter discovered this when he examined the Italian community of Boston’s West End to try to explain their lack of success in creating effective community organizations. He attributed it to strongly linked clusters or cliques that lacked weak links connecting them. The result was that any leader seeking to form a coalition to oppose, say, an urban renewal project, found no way into the various cliques. Starting with any one group, there might be no one who knew someone in another group well enough to provide an introduction, or because each group was so tightly linked and suspicious of outsiders (which would explain the lack of weak links) the leader could not generate the requisite trust.
Weak links are a key source of stability and resilience in networks. They are the conduit for sources of information and support while not being essential to the network’s function. By definition, a weak link is one that is not integrated into a network; it can be broken without affecting the function of the network Their value derives in part from being unessential, and, for that matter, low maintenance. Having sets of strongly linked networks that are then linked to one another through weak links is an attractive structure for survivability.
One question that is widely debated is if LinkedIn, social network sites in general, and more broadly the expansion of information and communication, bind us more strongly. Do they affect the number and the value of weak links?
My view is that there are forces that govern the number of weak links, and the structure of networks generally, that occur even in their absence. In particular, I propose the following hypothesis:
Over the course of social evolution, the number of weak links initially increases and then, as the society matures, decreases. The same is true over the course of capitalist evolution.
To see what I mean by this hypothesis, which I will expand on below, consider the progression from the starting point of society. Early society consisted of small networks of closely connected nodes – the family, the village. These groups then begin to connect to one another through weak links. In some cases, the node – the person – who provides that connection becomes as important as the central figure in the group. But if the weak links have persistent value, they will strengthen and the network will expand to include that link and its related network. The end result is a society and economy that is integrated, and that, because of the loss of weak links, is less diverse and resilient. Constraining how far this goes is as much technological as it is culture: How many balls can anyone have in the air? How well can they communicate? Our Facebook’s thousands of friends and LinkedIn’s hundreds of connections notwithstanding, the fact is we really can’t be friends and colleagues with all the matter in the universe.
Networks, Weak Links, and the Evolution of Society
Anthropologist Allen Johnson separates the development of society into three stages: the family/tribe, the local group, and the regional polity. Johnson views these three through a set of eight variables. The quality of network linkages is not one of them. But my objective is to provide a perspective for the role of the likes of LinkedIn, so I will take his three stages along a different route.
In the first stage, the family/tribe, all of the members are tightly linked. There are few if any weak links to other groups or tribes. The unit size is on the order of fifty people There are abundant resources for the tribe to forage or to develop the beginnings of agriculture and herding, with population density that is less than one person per square mile. With density so low, there is little need for territorial defense.
As population grows and resources become more constrained, the family/tribes form local groups in response to population pressures and the need to shepherd and protect resources. The network structure is a cluster of various tightly linked family-tribes all linking into a central figure, termed a Big Man. Local groups might have hundreds of people and a population density that is ten times that of the family/tribe. This is near the limits for the number of strong links one person can manage, (embodied in the concept of the Dunbar number), and so weak links may start to emerge within the Local Group. Protection of those resources requires keeping other tribes at bay, so interaction with others, when it does occur, is often violent rather than cooperative. But it is within the local groups that weak links begin to form as they reach out in informal trade, and begin the transfer of technology, such as methods of farming and storage, toolmaking and the like. The result is greater stability than for the isolated family/tribe.
The development of weak links continues as the Local Groups evolve into Regional Polity, which includes the chiefdom and the state. For the Regional Polity, the value of weak links across chiefdom becomes manifestly evident, because of the increased importance of trade and alliances. The nodes that create the weak links with other Regional Polities define the nature of the state, for example differentiating feudal, capitalist and totalitarian states.
For the feudal state, the links come through emissaries of the state and the bonds of marriage. That is, the weak links are maintained under the control of the central node of the network. If the weak links across the chiefdom and states come through merchants and financiers, we have nascent capitalism. The importance of the weak links can be measured by observing the stature and power afforded to the merchant class, which controls those connections. In the totalitarian state, the ideal network is to have all members connected through a strong link with the center and have weak links across the members themselves. Of course, it is impossible for the center to establish and maintain the strong links directly, so they do so through the political machine or covertly through the state police, both of which also take action to keep any intra-member links weak, or prevent their establishment at all.
Networks, Weak Links, and the Evolution of the Political Economy
The evolution of society is carried forward hand in hand with the evolution and stratification of the political economy. For example, until around 1100 AD Europe was peppered with small towns and villages, each self sufficient and nameless. Transportation was perilous, and was taken with a risk of becoming forever lost. And, in any case, there was little reason to travel from one village to the next, given that one had little to offer compared to another. (Sort of like each town having its own McDonalds, Starbucks, and Gap).
The exception was the towns that were in a central position, perhaps based on being on a waterway or adjacent to a geographical pass, and thus became the hub for surrounding villages. Over time these towns grew in wealth, and the wealth in turn supported guilds, which then over time became specialized based on their proximity to the raw materials for metals, wood, and textiles. The guilds provided goods to enhance the lives of those in the adjacent country side, and they in turn provided the towns with food and raw materials. Thus developed the economic structure for the Local Group.
The town and its supporting countryside each represented its own network of associations, and it became the task of the merchants to provide the links between them. The reason such links made sense post-1100 where they didn’t a few centuries earlier was the differentiation of production that supported trade. The links were weak because, first, it was only through the merchants that the connection existed, and second, if the merchants disappeared, the basic function of the town continued as before.
As towns with proximity to waterways became port cities and hubs of trade, the next step of capitalism developed. The product of the port cities was their links rather than real goods. And while the interior merchants plied their wares, trading the goods of one town for those of the next, it is in the ports that the essentials of capitalism took form: larger scale trade required capital for ships and letters of credit to finance cargo.
The point is that the evolution of society was often led by the network and links created by the economy, or was stifled by the lack of such links. The deliberate isolation in the Tokugawa era of Japan met its end because of the links that came about through trade. The control of wealth by the feudal lords began to fade, much as it did in the West, as the capital locked in the land was unleashed for capitalist enterprise, and the land-centered production was overshadowed first by that of the merchant class, and then of the industrialist. Another extreme is the early Ming in China, which demonstrated legendary seafaring, with fleets of 27,000 men traveling during multi-year expeditions to India and beyond, in one case as far as Africa. But the interest was amassing tribute and curiosities, (including giraffes!), not trade, with the result being centuries of isolation which left them in the dust during a period of unprecedented development in the West.
I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing
A key difference between a world made up of democratic, capitalistic societies and a world made up of feudal, totalitarian societies is the evolution forward from the Regional Polity. Absent revolution or war, the feudal state, centered around a ruler who guards all weak links, will be stable. Other states will be kept at arms length, with the only link being a weak link from ruler to ruler expressed through treaties and trade agreements. If, on the other hand, the links are established between the merchants and bankers, the links between the states may move beyond the ruler’s control, and will become increasingly strong. More information flow is better for business, as is a broader network for channels of production and distribution of product. Ultimately, at least in economic terms, the boundaries of the Regional Polity blur, and rather than having network clusters connected via weak links, the clusters integrate into one tightly connected network.
The key to this process is the limits of technology. Until very recently, the cost of communication and the limitations on keeping track of contacts was the constraint on transforming weak links into strong ones. But now the limitations of communication and processing are fading. The result is one large state, not in political terms, but in economic and informational terms. LinkedIn is one instrument in this process, but it extends beyond the social networks. Indeed, as I have argued in a recent post, the impact of links arising through much of the social media is more apparent than real. However, it is the most visible manifestation of what is occurring.
As the societal structure throughout the globe has moved along this path, the number of independent units has fallen. During Neolithic times there may have been in excess of 100,000 Local Groups, while today in we have a Regional Polity stage with only a few hundred states. And if we think in economic rather than political terms, the clusters, though difficult to define, are no doubt far smaller, and may be shrinking still.
From a network perspective, we are then all one big, happy, strongly linked family and that is the process of pulling in all information, to the point that there is less and less for a weak link to give you. In terms of information, everyone will be strongly linked, in the sense that they will all have the same (social) information.
So do we at last all link hands (strongly) and sing in perfect harmony? Even absent the political differences that prevent integration on the informational and economic side from extending out, there is a problem with a network that moves from many small networks connected by weak links to one network largely connected through strong links. And that is a reduction of resilience. Recall that a weak link is, by definition, one which at once both provides information from a new source and is not disruptive if it is broken. Recall also that in the earliest stage of society, the family or tribe, the key vulnerability was its isolation and lack of diversity. The final stage in the evolution of society brings things full circle, because although much larger and more productive, the fully linked society, with everyone sharing the same network, is also less resilient. All the nodes and clusters will tend to come to the same world view, share and depend on the same technology, and become intertwined in production. I wrote about this tendency in an earlier post on “asexual capitalism”.
And this perhaps gives rise to the collapse of societies. There is no end to speculation and proposals for the reason societies, flourishing and with great power and resources, falter and collapse. One suggestion, by Joseph Tainter, is that they fall under their own weight, they require ever increasing amounts of energy – both for operation and maintenance, and for management oversight – until the populace realizes it might be more efficient and productive to break away. With that realization usually precipitated by shocks such as famine or invasion. But another might be the reduction in weak links as the civilization expands, enveloping and integrating its neighbors, links that might have introduced the civilization to other ideas and approaches, warned of impending disaster, given shelter during calamity, and provided the resilience to these shocks.
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