Acquaintances are likely to be more vital to your online job search than close friends or family, according to a new study.
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard, Stanford, and LinkedIn conducted the largest-ever study on the impact of social media on the labor market, and have determined that “moderately weak” social ties are more beneficial than stronger connections for job seekers. A paper detailing their findings was published in Science on Thursday and illustrates how networking with people outside of your inner circle can lead to new employment opportunities.
“What this study shows is that the cliche about how important it is to network is true,” says Sinan Aral, a researcher on the team and professor of information technology and marketing at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
More specifically, Aral says the study demonstrates how networking with a diverse web of professionals—who you share a handful of mutual contacts with, online—may be the best way to find a new job. “Not just a bunch of people who all know each other and all swim in the same pools of information,” he says, “but people from different walks of life and from places that you might not think are relevant to you. Opportunities come from out of that left field.”
That may be especially important for tech-sector workers, the study says, who may be more likely to work remotely—a trend that has accelerated since the COVID-19 pandemic.
What the study shows
The study builds on sociology professor Mark Granovetter’s seminal 1973 study on “The Strength of Weak Ties,” which focused on how information spreads through social networks. Aral and his team sought to determine whether weak ties are particularly helpful in delivering new job opportunities.
While Granovetter’s paper has been cited over 65,000 times in the nearly 50 years since it was published, Aral says there’s never before been a large experiment that tested the theory as it relates to jobs.
To do this, researchers conducted a five-year set of experiments on LinkedIn, the world’s largest social media site for professionals, and looked at about 20 million LinkedIn members. The experiments tweaked how LinkedIn recommended connections to users—sometimes recommending connections that were part of their close circle (strong ties), and sometimes people who were from different social or professional groups (weak ties). These tweaks were random.
“We watched as their social networks evolved, and then watched as they applied for jobs, got jobs, and moved jobs, and then compared whether weak ties really helped people find and take new jobs. The answer was yes.”
The team’s findings square with what Phoebe Gavin, a career and leadership coach, says she tells clients about the importance of developing and maintaining “shallow connections.”
“You don’t need to take someone to dinner every three months to have a strong professional relationship with them,” she says. “They just need to know who you are and not forget about you.”
Why the study is important in today’s job market
The study found that weak ties were especially valuable for those in high-tech sectors of the economy.
Aral says that with more and more remote and hybrid work situations since the COVID-19 pandemic, online connection and work becomes more of a priority. He says: “Having an active presence on digital social networks and digital employment networks and engaging in digital professional networking is part and parcel of being part of the today’s digital economy today.”
Gavin says this means that it’s critical to be aware of how others in your field are managing their online presence on sites like LinkedIn or Twitter. “It’s really important to be proactive about understanding what the people at the pinnacle of your industry are doing to present themselves online,” she says. “Because with shallow connections, people are using shallow things to evaluate whether they should stick their neck out for you.”
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