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Riots, Reform and the Power of Social Networks

Research suggests that the ways in which people are tied together through social networks play a key role in social change and strongly influence whether a cause succeeds or fails. As part of the AdvocacyLabs initiative, 50CAN CEO Marc Porter Magee talks with Mark Granovetter, the Joan Butler Ford Professor of Sociology at Stanford University and an expert on social networks. Granovetter is the author of Society and Economy and Getting a Job.

Porter Magee: One of your big contributions to the field of sociology is introducing a more quantitative approach to studying social networks. What sparked that idea?

Granovetter: In college I read a book by the French historian Georges Lefebvre called The Great Fear of 1789. He was tracing how riots spread from one place to another in 18th century revolutionary France. He showed pictures of the postal routes connecting towns across the countryside and revealed how the idea of riots spread through these networks of dirt roads along with the mail to reach tens of thousands of people. Those pictures of networks really stuck with me. Something seemingly as chaotic as a riot was actually highly dependent on the way information flowed between people along well-organized mail routes.

I realized that these networks linking people together were a different, but crucial, level of analysis between the micro scale of individuals, and whatever was in their heads, and the macro scale that historians talk about, like wars and revolutions. In graduate school, I met a sociologist named Harrison White, who became my adviser. He was pioneering the study of these social connections, which I learned people were starting to call social networks.

That launched me into the study of social networks. Through my conversations with White, I got increasingly interested in what kind of ties connected people to larger groups.

You wrote an article titled “The Strength of Weak Ties” that grew out of your insight that we should pay attention to how people were connected to each other. It is the most-cited publication of all time in the field of sociology and it created a new way of thinking about the social world through the mathematics of loose, far-reaching social connections. You followed up on that surprise success a few years later with “Threshold Models of Collective Behavior,” which brought new insights to the way social movements are born. What is the concept of the strength of weak ties and how does it connect to the idea of collective behavior?

The idea of the strength of weak ties came from my dissertation work on how people find jobs. A common viewpoint was that strong ties between people were crucial for success and weak ties were a sign of alienation. But it turned out that the weaker ties between people were often indispensable in creating new opportunities.

The connection between social networks and collective behavior came out of the question: “Let’s imagine everyone is equally influenced by everybody else, how might the number of people doing something shift people’s willingness to get involved?” In other words, what’s the threshold for getting involved?

A popular idea in the 1960s and 1970s was that when people are in a crowd, their mentality changes, they became like a different person. In contrast, the idea behind thresholds is that people will respond rationally to the actions of the people around them.

The notion is that each person has some threshold of how many other people they have to see do something before they’ll do it. If they see that number of people do it, then they do it. If they don’t see that number do it, then they don’t do it. Nothing changed in their head that caused them to take action. It’s just that their threshold has been triggered.

If you have just a slightly different distribution of thresholds, you may get a completely different outcome. Take the example of 100 people who have thresholds ranging from 0 to 99. Under those conditions, everybody will riot. The person with a threshold of 0 takes action. The second person sees this first person riot, and the third person sees two other people rioting, and eventually everyone’s threshold is triggered and everyone is rioting. But if the person with a threshold of 1 was missing, no one else would riot and you would see only a single rioter!

These are simple ideas but they have big implications. Malcolm Gladwell got ahold of the strength of weak ties and it became a core idea in his best-selling book The Tipping Point, and the work on threshold models later appeared in his New Yorker article on school shootings.

What does it look like when you apply these ideas to the world of advocacy and social change? For example, did the marriage equality movement benefit from these kind of threshold behaviors?

Gay marriage is certainly a very interesting case because what happened was that as people became more and more comfortable coming out as gay, more and more people realized that they could come out of the closet, too. You can imagine that gay individuals had different thresholds for how many other people had to come out publicly before they would feel comfortable doing so.

The more people came out, the more people realized how many gay people they actually knew. And it turned out that the thresholds were also at work with people’s support for gay rights. Having a few people that they knew reasonably well come out of the closet really shifted the way people thought about this issue. Instead of gay people being “the other,” it turns out to be their sister, their cousin or their friend. Once those thresholds were cleared, it created this kind of tsunami of support for gay marriage in a short period of time.

Does this same idea also help illuminate the fight against sexual harassment and the success of the MeToo movement?

Yeah, it’s a similar dynamic at work. A lot of people didn’t understand how widespread the problem of sexual harassment was because it wasn’t talked about in public. And women had different thresholds for when they would feel comfortable telling their own stories.

Women were rightly scared for their jobs, scared for their reputations, scared for retaliation. Someone had to be the first one to do it. These were very brave people. When the first women went public with their stories, it made it possible for other women to feel comfortable coming forward as well, and eventually so many women came forward it became a movement.

What made MeToo so powerful was the way it changed individuals who were not in a movement, but who just saw enough other people come forward who they could identify with that it helped them overcome their fear of retaliation. And that is a true threshold phenomenon.

Where do you think this kind of threshold advocacy might go next?

Well, I think that the way people are connected together through social media is hugely important in both good and bad ways if you care about social change. We are becoming much better at spreading ideas within like-minded circles through these social networks, perhaps too good at it, because the ideas don’t have to be true to spread.

The social media platforms themselves bear some responsibility for that because they have enabled echo chambers where people just hear the same thing over and over again. And they become completely implacable in their views and not able to get any new information. So, it is possible that if you want big changes, you will need to find ways to break out of those echo chambers.

Which brings us back to the strength of weak ties. Is social media another example of the power of weak ties, or does it show us their limits?

There is a debate, which Gladwell was one of the first people to get involved in with his 2010 article, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Won’t be Tweeted,” in The New Yorker, about the limits of creating big social movements through social media. His argument at the time was that people needed to be in close contact with people they know well who are engaged in a social movement before they'll be activated and social media don't do that. Ten years later there is still a huge debate in the literature about this.

My belief is that this critique of online social networks is only partially true. Take the 2019 Hong Kong protests. It was almost completely coordinated through social media. So, a more interesting question is: When are the weak ties created through social media strong enough to power a movement?  We don’t know yet. But it’s a big question that advocates should be asking themselves.