Strong and Weak Ties in the International Context

In Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted, Gladwell discusses the importance of strong ties in making radical changes and the ultimate shortcomings of weak ties. This is an interesting view as Granovetter’s original study on strong and weak ties found that many weak ties, or casual acquaintances, prove much more critical in gaining information or pursuing opportunities, most famously in job hunting (as discussed on p.49 of Watts’s book). However, Gladwell points to the student protesters and shows that without their strong connection and ability to talk “in a way that works only with people who talk late into the night with one another” they never would have had the courage to begin the protest at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro. Of course other people with less strong connections did join the protest, they needed that initial commitment to seed their beginnings, similarly to how Ivanna relied on her friend Evan to begin her search for her Sidekick and only after initial friends helped did others join in with email support.

This seems like a very conclusive argument that only strong ties can be trusted to start important movements. However, in an international context having these very strong ties is definitely not always possible if attempting to verify an opposing state. Here, it seems as if there is often reliance on the information provided by weak ties through social media and the trust of that information, as it is easier to discover. Yet, this information can often be flawed, as Gladwell points out with Twitter’s reaction to the protests in Moldova and Tehran. These reactions may have largely overplayed the people’s involvement. This is not surprising since if only a few people post on subject, it can lead to a quick cascade where thousands not the event praise their support regardless of actual present numbers.

As both strong and weak ties have their pros and cons in international scenarios which do you think is best for governments to pursue? In this context, strong ties would likely be the classic view of intelligence agencies, which have a high entrance barrier but also high trust, and weak ties are posts on social media which provide an extremely low entrance barrier and almost no trust at all. Of course this can also extend to beginning or monitoring new social revolutions, in addition to verification of weapon systems or other governmental actions. In any of these scenarios, is it best to trust weak ties or try to implant strong ties? Would there be any practical way to combine the two for a maximum advantage? Has either become entirely worthless in the modern world? — Ben