Are hyperlinks "weak ties"?

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


More than thirty years ago, Mark Granovetter introduced the idea of "weak ties,"1 defining them as interpersonal connections that are not particularly intense, close, or emotional. And yet weak ties serve an indispensable function: They hold together groups of people who do not otherwise have much in common and may not share the same view of the world. "Bridges" are particularly important weak ties, as they are the only links between different sets of individuals. Without weak ties and bridges, internally homogenous groups of people would be completely isolated from others outside their groups. Social interactions would occur only between like-minded people. Weak ties thus reduce social fragmentation. The social and psychological forces that work against weak ties are powerful. It is generally more efficient to take advice from like-minded individuals.2 People do not like disagreement and often seek to minimize the discomfort of experiencing it by avoiding it in the first place or by adjusting their attitudes to reduce the discomforting dissonance.3 In light of these pressures toward homogeneity, weak ties gain importance because they expose people to crosscutting views. They allow information to diffuse more widely and ideas to be exchanged between different groups of people. Weak ties "are the channels through which ideas, infiuences, and information socially distant from ego may reach him."4 It is through weak ties that people encounter information that challenges their existing opinions. Recent studies of weak ties in the political realm have offered different assessments of their ability to support civic discourse and deliberative democracy. Huckfeldt, Johnson, and Sprague find that encountering diverse opinions through weak ties is quite common and sustainable.5 Citizens with weak ties develop more balanced, ambivalent political opinions. Although Mutz, too, shows that "hearing the other side" encourages appreciation of opposing points of view, she finds less disagreement in people's interpersonal networks to begin with.6 Her results also reveal that crosscutting exposure can depress political participation. Yet both studies agree-in fact, take as their premise-that weak ties offer the best chance to encounter unexpected, unselected, and potentially conflicting opinions and facts. Many observers fear that encounters with "the other side" through the media are becoming rare. Understanding interpersonal discussions is important for Mutz exactly because of the fear that media exposure is becoming increasingly selective. Although media can be a source of exposure to political opposition, "as the number of potential news sources multiplies, consumers must choose among them, and that exercise of choice may lead to less diversity of political exposure."7 Paradoxically, increasing diversity of opinion in the aggregate could foster individual narrow- mindedness. And if the addition of only a few more television news channels threatens to have this effect, the consequences of online diversity seem exponentially more disturbing. The capacity of different Web sites to link to each other offers a potentially consequential counterforce to this trend toward greater selectivity and fragmentation. Can hyperlinks, by connecting people who would otherwise go their separate ways in the sprawling new media landscape, prevent the kind of fragmentation that observers see looming large? In this essay, I sketch answers to two versions of this question. The first version of the question is the one commonly addressed by academics and commentators alike. Can anything be done to keep media users from exclusively exposing themselves to ideologically extreme media outlets that offer little information to challenge their existing opinions? Drawing on our experience with cable television and some early studies of Internet use, I conclude that the dangers of political fragmentation are probably exaggerated. Bigger dangers to a healthy democracy lie elsewhere. Almost completely overlooked is the second version of the fragmentation question: can anything be done to keep media users from ignoring political information altogether? In a world where media content of many different genres and subgenres is abundantly available around the clock, tuning out politics is easy. Hyperlinks could make their greatest contribution to democracy in encouraging the politically uninterested. Unfortunately, as I will argue in the final section of this essay, this is the function they are least likely to serve.

Original languageAmerican English
Title of host publicationThe Hyperlinked Society
Subtitle of host publicationQuestioning Connections in the Digital Age
PublisherUniversity of Michigan Press
Number of pages18
ISBN (Print)9780472050437
StatePublished - 2008
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences

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