How do you connect? Strong ties, weak ties and privacy in your online life

Note: This post is a blog assignment for Nicco Mele’s course “Media, Politics and Power in the Digital Age” at the Kennedy School of Government. Many of the thoughts in the post come from readings we have covered in the class on privacy and relationships through social media. Many of the thoughts are not my own, but I make connections to our lives here in Cambridge and back in Mississippi.

One plus of living in a large urban area is the convenience of things: a vet around the corner, good public transportation, front door grocery delivery. Grocery delivery is particularly intriguing to me. Put in your online order for honey nut cheerios, asparagus, and milk, and the store’s service makes sure it gets to your door step.

Processing this order online is convenient, but have customers ever considered the trust they put in the company when sharing their grocery preferences?

“What if your health insurance premiums were calculated based on data from online food orders?” asks John Palfrey and Urs Gasser in their dated, but still relevant book, Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. The duo emphasizes that terms of service in online media are often malleable, and companies may change how they disclose your personal data from one year to the next. Gasser and Palfrey underscore that economic pressures on a company can quickly reshape what data they sell to other companies.

Even as terms of service change, we as consumers rarely read them in the first place. When a class of Kennedy School students was asked if they had ever read through the full terms of service for a site, 1 out of 50-something said they had taken the time.

It is also possible that an online service could change our privacy in a way people notice. Gasser and Palfrey use the introduction of the Facebook news feed as an example of a change in privacy that set off a storm of response from users. However, even if a social media outlet like Facebook violates individual’s standards for privacy, it is possible that they would not unsubscribe because of the high cost of losing that network and easy connection to others.

Ease of connection is a key piece of what attracts so many to Facebook. You can follow friends of friends, a colleague at work or the girl you met once at a party when you were 20. These more distant relationships are characterized as “weak ties” in Howard Rheingold’s book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. In contrast, strong ties are those that exist with your closest family and friends, the ones you turn to first to share significant events in your life whether good or bad. Rheingold shares that these weak ties are particularly important if you are looking to share or gain information outside of your bubble of close connections—

“Numerous weak ties can be important in seeking new information or stimulating innovation. You are more likely to find a job if you have a large and diverse network of weak ties.”

This distinction of weak and strong ties reminds me a lot of how a good friend at Bike Walk Mississippi leverages support for her events – whether she knows it or not. When Bike Walk puts on a festival, they often put out a call on Facebook for volunteers to run activities or sell food at booths. Friends of the director and those with whom the organization has strong ties often see the call and sign up to help. At the same time, the organization is promoting the event for those that have weaker ties, trying to generate attendance through the larger network of diverse connections that follow their Facebook page.


For me, the lesson learned is that running events for an organization with limited resources means depending heavily on both weak and strong ties. Focusing on both weak and strong ties is critical to the success of an event and critical to generating momentum for a cause in the months and years to come.

A side note: Bike Walk Mississippi is a fantastic organization doing hard work to promote and protect bikers across communities in Mississippi. They are also in the midst of a strong push to generate more resources to support their programming. Take a look! Learn more and think about contributing (as you might guess I feel a ‘strong tie’ to the organization).

Until next time!


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