James Fowler’s keynote address at the #ACUI11 conference this year stirred up quite a discussion after he made the claim that online relationships had little influence over behavior. As expected, our friends in the #SAchat community quickly expressed concern for the statement through the Twitter backchannel and afterwards in the hotel lobby as they’ve experienced a great deal of influence exchange through #SAchat. In talking over the keynote with Jeff Lail from UNCG that night, he brought up the idea of weak ties verses strong ties within relationships. In-person connections are more likely to build strong ties whereas online connections are more likely to result in weak ties.
Over the past year, it’s been interesting to watch this concept play out within the micro world of Student Affairs. The #SAchat community on Twitter is the most active hashtag for Student Affairs professionals to connect, learn, and grow from each other. However, within #SAchat there are many sub cultures such as Residence Life, Orientation Leaders, First Year Experience, etc. These subcultures have tried, several times, to create and maintain a hashtag to connect their members together. But most of the hashtags have faded away. Why?
Let’s start with #SAchat. The original group of people who started #SAchat knew each other in the real world. There were strong ties within the inner core. This meant that if no one else participated in the conversation, there would still be a longer term commitment to the conversation between the people in the inner core because they shared strong ties. As it happened, other people did join the conversation and over time it grew. If it were a dance floor, the total number of people on the dance floor increased through weak ties, but the number of people with strong ties in the center of the dance floor stayed the same. The critical shift in the community happened last year during conference season when #SAchat members hosted meetups at each conference. They wanted to meet their weak tie online friends IRL (in real life) and thus turn them into strong tie friends. The results were amazing, the #SAchat community grew exponentially. Back to the dance floor, not only did the overall number of people on the dance floor increase, but the number of people in the center of the dance floor increased as many of the weak ties were converted into strong ties. Each meetup repeats this process.
During conference season this year, I made it a point to connect with as many #SAchat people as possible IRL because not only did I want to get to know them better, but I also know how strong ties are what keep people engaged in the community longer.
On the flip side is #FYEchat. I started the #FYEchat community to mimic the success of the #SAchat community. But it has never quite worked [yet] even though I see the value it could provide to First Year Experience professionals. The difference is I started the community on a foundation of weak ties so the commitment to keep the conversation going wasn’t there. So it fades in and out.
Another example is the #WLsalt community. The community started online with a collection of weak ties but has since grown to a dedicated group. The critical difference between #WLsalt and #FYEchat was that soon after a collection of weak ties were created online, they hosted a meetup for the community at a conference to convert those weak ties into strong ties. The strong ties thus formed the inner core of their dance floor.
In terms of weak ties and strong ties, there are two options to creating and maintaing an online community. Either start with an inner core built on strong ties that are dedicated, or convert your weak ties into strong ties quickly. Once the inner core is established, and the community norm of inclusion is practiced, you’ll watch your community grow with little effort from you. Weak ties won’t have as much influence over you as strong ties whether online or offline.