Sometimes a cigar is a metaphor. And sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes, as Albert-Lazslo Barabasi explains in Linked, a cigar is a miniature model of how our vaster cigar-shaped universe is organized, functions and thrives.
Let me explain.
Barabasi, currently the Robert Gray Dodge Professor of Network Science at Northeastern University, has dedicated his life to understanding how networks work, why things connect the way they do, and what that means. In Linked, he explores the idea that the networks and patterns we see in, say, science are not only functional systems there, and not even metaphors for life, but actually small models of how the world really works everywhere.
For example, Barabasi points to biology, where there are forces called weak bonds, which, like their name implies, are bonds that it doesn’t take a great deal of force to break. Hydrogen bonds are an example, which tend to be between hydrogen (big shock) and nitrogen or oxygen. Now, weak bonds would imply to non-scientists (or at least, to the one writing this review) that they’re not that important, because, you know, they’re weak. But apparently because they’re weak, they’re the most prevalent kinds of bonds in the universe. Because they can form with just about anything.
But because they can bond with just about anything, they do, which means that if you took them out of every atom they exist in, the entire universe would break apart.
So they’re important. Even though they’re weak.
Which would be interesting if it were just a metaphor except it’s not. Because they exist elsewhere and are just as important. Like among factory workers. Barabasi points to a mid-1960s study of factory workers outside Boston in which researchers wanted to know how they got their job. Now, the researchers were expecting to hear things like “My brother told me about it” or “My best friend brought me in”. That tight-knit groups of people came together to help each other out. Because that’s the whole point of tight-knit groups, right? Loyalty and allegiance and support.
But what they heard, over and over again, was that it was acquaintances who got them the job. People they knew a little, but not a lot. People on the periphery of their society. Like a brother’s neighbor. Or a cousin’s friend. People who were not a part of their tight-knit group. In a sense, people with whom they had weak bonds.
And the more the researchers thought about this, the more sense they saw it made. People in the tight-knit group would really only know about jobs that each other already knew about – because they moved in the same circles. (or said another way, everyone who works at the same factory will likely only know about jobs at that factory). But “weak bonds” – people who interact with the tight-knit group but are on its periphery – would probably work at other factories. Or have friends in other towns. Or have family members in other factories at other jobs. Because they moved in other circles. Because they had weak bonds with lots of tight-knit groups. Just like in biology.
And just as weak bonds hold molecules together in biology, these weak bonds in a sense, hold society together. Because they tie different tight-knit groups of like-minded people together to form larger groups – groups we call “communities” or “societies” or even “nations”.
Which Barabasi demonstrates, again and again, with examples that range from Hollywood actors to the internet to technology and more. That, as counter-intuitive as it feels, weak bonds are the things that are actually and consistently holding everything –everything – together.
Now, let’s take this idea a step further, into 21st century social media (where admittedly Barabasi does not go, as the original version of this book was written in 2002). Social media is, in many respects, just an updated, digital version of those tight-knit communities, right? With one important added element: feedback loops. Because social media, whether we’re talking about facebook or twitter or whatever, is where likeminded people (and we know we’re likeminded because that’s how we wound up in each other’s feeds) share the information with each other that reinforces their perspectives, biases and prejudices. And in which weak bonds – that is, people who are tangentially connected to someone in the tight-knit online community – stand out like sore thumbs because of their differentness. Because they question or disagree with the things everyone else in the feed – or tight-knight community – are agreeing with.
And what happens to these people? They are chased out of the group, right? Because they’re wrong, they’re outsiders, they’re “the other”.
But these “others” are the weak bonds of our society. The weak bonds that are actually holding everything together. The weak bonds that social media appears to be designed – for whatever reason – to destroy.
Now, am I saying that Zuckerberg and Dorsey and the rest did this on purpose? Probably not, but that’s not important. Do I think we should get rid of social media? Again, no, because that would be about as meaningful as suggesting we get rid of gravity. But also because social media isn’t the point. Networks are, or rather the survival of networks is the point. Because as Barabasi writes late in the book:
The truly important role networks play is in helping existing organizations adapt to rapidly changing market conditions.
Networks – which are the structure of societies – let us adapt to change. But they cannot function without weak bonds. Which means that maintaining weak bonds is actually the most important thing you can do if you want to maintain society. How? Well, how about via social media? For while they are great at “purifying”, they are also great at connecting. Or as Barabasi writes, “Social links that would have died out a hundred years ago are kept alive and can be easily activated.”
In other words, social media is the problem and the solution.
Stick that in your cigar and smoke it.