The long-range ties that bind and the social wormholes that connect them

The social ties that connect us with those at the distant fringes of our social networks can sometimes be nearly as powerful as the ties shared within a small circle of friends, according to a new study’s surprising findings. Much like their theoretical cosmological counterparts, these social network “wormholes” can bridge vast gaps in the sprawling expanses of our social networks, directly connecting individuals and/or communities that would normally be separated by a long chain of intermediary links. These unlikely connections may have important implications for the spreading of information and ideas – including ideas that are perhaps socially or emotionally unhealthy. For decades, social scientists have suggested that there are key differences in the diversity and volume of information one acquires through weak versus strong social links; specifically, an individual is more likely to be exposed to novel information from weaker social ties, in more distant networks. By contrast, the volume of information (bandwidth) that is acquired from close, strong ties is far greater, and often “redundant” with their own beliefs. While this diversity-bandwidth tradeoff has been demonstrated in small social networks with short-range ties, the lack of population-sized network datasets has made it difficult to determine if similar dynamics apply to long-range social networks. It’s separately been widely assumed that distant social ties that span large network distances are weak, when compared to close social links. Here, Patrick Park and colleagues leveraged eleven diverse population-scale communications networks – which included 56 million Twitter users and 58 million mobile phone subscribers across Africa, Europe, Asia and North America – and discovered strong, long-range ties, which provide high-bandwidth shortcuts that reach across extreme network distances. Albeit rare, these robust shortcuts, termed “wormholes” by the authors, were identified in each observed network. According to Park et al., the results provide new insights into the diffusion of novel information between seemingly disparate groups. This information shared includes emotional contagions, which could influence participation in activities, such as voting or risky social movements.


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