social network graph

The strength of weak ties – why researchers use Twitter and LinkedIn

Why do your best opportunities come from your more distant contacts rather than your close friends? If you are a scientist and know the answer to this, the chances are that you use Twitter and LinkedIn.

Think of the job opportunities that you have come across in your career. How did you learn about them? Many are likely to have come from your peripheral acquaintances, and not your closest family and friends.

Why this happens is a profound sociological question, and it has been investigated by network theory for 40+ years ever since Granovetter published a seminal paper on the phenomenon called ‘The Strength of Weak Ties’ in 1973.

social network graph

The weakest link may, in this context, be the most effective. Graph of my own (Mike’s) social network on Linkedin from

Power of the network

In a PhD and research context, I think that the strength of weak ties can partly explain why Twitter and LinkedIn are preferred over, say, Facebook.

Unlike Facebook, which focusses on deepening the bonds with those people who you already interact with the most, Twitter and LinkedIn tend to systematically extend the periphery of your network, creating many longer, weaker ties in the process. These weaker ties sometimes end in close ones that can end in opportunities. As a PhD these opportunities offer feedback to your own research, improve its reach and quality, and boost your subsequent career.

The strength of weak ties was my starting point for a group of workshops for PhD students that I have just held in Denmark and in Norway. The PhD students were invited to offer their own explanation for the paradox.

One of them suggested that the strength of weak ties could be explained by something so simple as the fact that we are reluctant to mix our business or career opportunities with our close friendships. So we seek opportunities from the weak ties rather than the strong ones.

Lucky links

My own favourite explanation for the phenomenon is that your close friends tend to be clustered around the same interests. Close friends are more like you, and tend to see the same ideas and opportunities. For peripheral contacts, however, this is not the case, allowing these sudden, serendipitous links, or lucky chance meetings, to take place.

This is why it comes as a surprise when you realise that two of your friends know each other from a different context than you.

In the workshops, I had PhD students work out a concept for their own use of Twitter and LinkedIn that exploits this phenomenon. To put it bluntly: The strategy is to concentrate on platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn to extend the periphery of your network, and leave the interaction with close friends to your real life interactions and Facebook.


Twitter and Linkedin, the topic for PhDs at the Faculty of Health in the beautiful Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø

But there is yet another explanation for the ‘strength of weak ties’ phenomenon that is more complicated. And this also has implications for your social media routines.

One step over the horizon

It has to do with the fact that people are tied to one another along a series of different social dimensions. You know someone from the running club, and a second person from your statistics class at university. You perceive them as far apart even though they may be related in a third dimension that you are unaware of.

This is why it comes as a surprise when you realise that two of your friends know each other from a different context than you.

Scaled up to the hundreds of friends and contacts that you have, and the many different social contexts that you are engaged in, this adds up to a large number of people who are related closely to you, but who are off your radar. You could say that they are just on the other side of your social horizon.

Through a weak tie you move one step over your social horizon.

Now my theory is, that it is here that the strength of weak ties is. Through a weak tie you move one step over your social horizon. And this new step will enable you to see a whole new set of connections.  Twitter, for example, works well as a social media platform for scientists, as it enables them to engage directly with their next level of connections (over their immediate social horizon) within a specific interest area, venue, conference or research field. The fast interaction on events and specialist themes (via hashtags f.ex.) is good for serendipitous meetings with other researchers working on the same type of problem, but on a different data set in a different part of the world.

LinkedIn supplements this, through what the network theorists call triadic closure. If I know two people that don’t know each other (a strong tie), there a higher chance that the two people will connect through the fact that they know me (form a weak tie). This works particularly well on LinkedIn as people’s connections cluster together based on specialties and professions.

Platforms extend social reach, like at conferences

In a specialised research community, platforms like Twitter allow you to reach out to people based on interests, conferences and hashtags.  This means that someone that is working on a problem that is related to yours, maybe distant geographically and on other social dimensions, yet just over the horizon on Twitter, is more likely to be found.

There are many practical ways in you as a researcher can strategically take this step over their social horizon. At a conference, for example, you are no longer limited by the people who you accidentally bump into at the buffet, but can immediately enter into a dialogue with the people you want to via Twitter (maybe you found them by skimming the conference’s hashtag) during the lectures. You then subsequently followed up this dialogue with a face to face conversation afterwards.

Who knows? This weak tie might be your next strong opportunity.

What do you think? How do you explain the strength of weak ties? I am interested in hearing what you think in the comments below!

Do you yourself work with PhDs or with research communication?

Get me to do a Twitter/Linkedin workshop for PhD students at your institution! In this practical workshop, researchers are introduced to the systematic use of Twitter, LinkedIn, other specialized social media for researchers, and tracking applications.

Fun, fascinating and practical!

12 replies
  1. Claus Baggersgaard
    Claus Baggersgaard says:

    Really interesting post Mike! I will be concentrating more on my weak ties from now on. I know we once had a conversation at a seminar – something about leveraging ‘weak’ Twitter contacts to ‘strong’ LinkedIn connections. Do you think there is any inherent value in moving one group of weak ties on one platform to make them ties on another platform?

  2. Mike Young
    Mike Young says:

    Thanks Claus, glad you liked it! I think there are many reasons for using different social media platforms for different things, and this is one of them. Say, for example, that your Twitter contacts were predominantly wider, research contacts, and that your LinkedIn contacts were predominantly contacts from your immediate, close colleagues (and previous colleagues). Then I think that one of your goals would be to bring the influential people in your wider Twitter circle into your closer LinkedIn one. And there are many ways to do this. The subject of my next blog post 🙂

  3. Sean Case
    Sean Case says:

    Interesting post, thanks! I can see the benefit of building up a network of ‘weak’ ties on Twitter and LinkedIn. But I wonder what would be the best way to go about this. Is it better to start making connections following some weak but meaningful interaction (e.g. you met them at a conference, you read a paper of theirs that you like), or is it just as effective to go with a ‘scattergun’ approach – i.e. adding or following anyone on Twitter or Linkedin who may be in your field and then hoping for them to follow you back, even if you have never met them? Maybe a combination of both?

  4. Mike Young
    Mike Young says:

    Now that is a really interesting question Sean, and I know there are alot of people who use the scattergun approach on LinkedIn. The corresponding approach on Twitter is via follow-back circles through specific hashtags (like fx. #FBPE – against Brexit and meaning Follow Back Pro Europe) and through automated follow-unfollow apps. What also drives the ‘scattergun’ approach is that Twitter and LinkedIn don’t really penalise this behaviour, and even encourage it with some of their features like the synchronise e-mail contacts function. I don’t do it myself though. I don’t think that scattergunning people really leads to meaningful interactions, and people see through it as a ‘strategy’.

    Your questions also touch on a deeper more philosophical question. Say you get to know someone via an interaction on one of the platforms first – maybe through a discussion under a post on a Twitter news feed. Is this a ‘weak’ interaction just because it is virtual and had no prior face-to-face or strong interaction? I know alot of my stronger ties have come via this networking method, which is neither based on a strong real life prior interaction or identification of interests, nor a scattergun.

  5. Siddharth Sareen
    Siddharth Sareen says:

    Nice piece, Mike, eases people who might not be social media savvy into considering their optimal use of it professionally. I think besides the networking function, tools like Twitter feeds curated based on a specific interest (e.g. I mainly use it linked with solar energy governance) can be a rich resource for real time news updates. When handled intelligently, social media can certainly help bring relevant connections to one’s attention, and it’s a great feeling bumping into someone halfway through a conference and knowing you’ve been following some parallel sessions in absentia through their tweets and have a lot to talk about to follow up on virtual conversation!

    • Mike Young
      Mike Young says:

      Thanks Siddharth, this has not only happened to me at conferences, but even a couple of times on the commute in to Copenhagen on the train. You are tweeting away on a certain hashtag, look up, and see the same person walking past you that you just retweeted. It works!

  6. Afton Halloran
    Afton Halloran says:

    Very interesting, Mike!

    I had someone come up to me at a conference at UN City yesterday and say thanks for tweeting so much about the conference. She recognised me in my Twitter photo. I added her later on LinkedIn. I was rally surprised and happy that she had introduced herself.

    I take to Twitter and LinkedIn to interact with the world. Sometimes it’s the posts that you thought no one was reading that provide the hook that reels interesting contacts in!

  7. Alberto
    Alberto says:

    Nice post Mike! I would just add that being nice with people (which should be done by default, ehm) and chatting with strangers may lead to unexpected turns… I just got an absolutely fun and totally unexpected high school teacher job through a friend-of-a-friend via Facebook 😉

  8. Katarzyna Wac
    Katarzyna Wac says:

    Dear Mike – that is really an interesting and challenging topic that not only relate to PhDs, i think.
    Myself – before Twitter and LinkedIN i have great stories of serendipitous (which later became strong) links created in circumstances of waiting in a line, flying the same aircraft, looking for the same product in the supermarket shelf or studying together in a library. Now – such links are created in the virtual space – along a joint “digital goal” – discussion around an article, book, event.
    Now – I always say to me students ” talk to strangers” in reality or virtually!
    Thank you for reassuring scientific approach towards it 🙂

    • Mike Young
      Mike Young says:

      Thanks for your comment Kate! What really interests me is how real life interactions are augmented by Twitter and LinkedIn. And I think these offline/online techniques are constantly developing as both the platforms and the real life meetings and events co-evolve! Keep talking to strangers – I like it! Mike


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