ARIN6901: Twitter: Weak ties and a low degree of separation make for an effective diffusion tool

The exploration by Caroline Haythornthwaite in regards to use of media and how this relates to the strength of ties is seamlessly applicable to Twitter. According to Haythornthwaite:

It is argued from the research literature and studies by the author that where ties are strong, communicators can influence each other to adapt and expand their use of media to support the exchanges important to their tie, but where ties are weak, communicators are dependent on common, organizationally established means of communication and protocols established by others. Due to this differential use of media, a new medium that adds means and opportunities for previously unconnected others to communicate will have positive effects on weak ties and weak-tie networks, in particular by laying an infrastructure of latent ties (ones that exist technically but have not yet been activated), and providing an opportunity for weak ties to develop and strengthen.
(Haythornthwaite, 2002:  p.1)

Twitter is a non-reciprocal social networking service – people can “follow” others yet that person being followed is not obligated to follow them back. According to a Korean study which analysed 41 million user profiles and 1.47 billion follower/following relationships, only 22% of connections on Twitter are reciprocal and an astounding 68% of users are not followed by anyone that they follow (Lardinois, 2010). I am sceptical about that last figure however.  Although other SNSs also do not require reciprocal relationships, Twitter has the lowest rate of these.

So, going back to the notion of network ties, I believe Twitter’s organisation favours weak ties and this is likely one of the reasons it has become so heavily adopted – it is currently used by 93 million people (Kiss, 2010). Since the relationship does not have to be reciprocal, a major barrier to participation has been removed, allowing for a larger number of connections to be made that would not otherwise be possible.

Haythornthwaite also introduces the idea of “latent ties” defined above. Twitter can most definitely be seen as a provider of latent ties and the conversion of latent ties to weak ties is so straightforward due to the non-reciprocal nature of participation.

The Korean study also found that on Twitter, the average degree of separation between two randomly selected users is 4.1, significantly smaller than the result of six in traditional “real world networks” discovered by Stanley Milgram and known as “Six Degrees of Separation”. The combination of the weak tie-emphasis and the smaller degree of separation suggest that Twitter is an effective way of diffusing information across a wide area via the simple practice of the “re-tweet”.

This leads me to wonder if eventually a scenario of zero degrees of separation may be reached by future SNSs in a scenario where everyone is always connected to each other via an ubiquitous network. It may not be something out of a freaky science fiction novel.


Haythornthwaite, C.(2002) ‘Strong, Weak, and Latent Ties and the Impact of New Media’,
The Information Society, 18: 5, 385 — 401

Kiss, J. (2010) One in ten UK web users visit
Accessed from:
Last accessed:  13 September 2010

Lardinois, F. (2010) Study: Twitter Is Not a Very Social Network
Accessed from:
Last accessed:  13 September 2010


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