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Weak Ties Gone Wild
Notes on networks, novelty, and edge realms.
One of the since-faded early concerns of the internet was “information overload.” The worry was that given the onset of abundant connectivity and content, we were being inundated with so much information that we’d never be able to process it all. Now we limit the flow in our feeds and find just what we need. The real danger of filter bubbles and echo chambers is a cultivated myopia: a limited view, a world of sameness, and an inability to see beyond the barriers we’ve erected for ourselves. As Jay Ogilvy once said, “If it’s not different, it’s not information.”
In the late 1960s, Mark Granovetter was studying how people found jobs. His 1973 article in the American Journal of Sociology, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” states that each person in a close social network is likely to have the same information as everyone else in that network. It’s the weak ties to other networks that lead to the new stuff. That is, weak ties are a more likely source of novel ideas and information—regarding jobs, mates, and other opportunities—than strong ones. Granovetter says, “I put the theory of weak ties together from a number of things. I learned about hydrogen bonding in AP Chemistry in high school and that image always stuck with me—these weak hydrogen bonds were holding together huge molecules precisely because they were so weak. That was still in my head when I started thinking about networks.”
Like most of my research interests, I first noticed these thresholds in music. I was looking at the tapes and CDs I had on hand one day, and I noticed that most of my favorite bands didn’t fit into established genres. They tended to straddle the lines between genres. In nature, these interstitial spaces are called edge realms. In her book When Plants Dream (Watkins Media, 2019), Sophia Rokhlin describes them as follows:
The edge describes the place where two distinct ecosystems meet. These are places of tension and unfamiliarity, territories of confrontation, where different ecosystems overlap and merge. The edge is found where a grassland meets a forest, where oceans reach the shore, where wetlands mediate between river basins and fields. Edges are hot spots of biodiversity that invite innovation, intermingling, and new forms of cooperation from various species. Edge realms are thresholds of potential and fecundity.
An edge realm is a wilderness, a mutant space ripe for new forms. In Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, the mysterious Area X is just such a space. Its pollinations crossing well established boundaries, mixing into ever-new breeds and combinations. In his book about VanderMeer’s work, None of This is Normal (University of Minnesota Press, 2018), Ben Robertson writes,
Area X is something else, what has always already disrupted the processes by which by which borders are established between that and this, between one space or time and another space or time, between the human and whatever its other happens to be.
The fertile ground is in between the established crops of others. The new stuff happens at the edges, in between the codified categories. Any old boring story from history can be made more interesting by varying viewpoints. In his 1996 memoir, A Year with Swollen Appendices (faber & faber), Brian Eno proposes the idea of edge culture, which is based on the premise that
If you abandon the idea that culture has a single center, and imagine that there is instead a network of active nodes, which may or may not be included in a particular journey across the field, you also abandon the idea that those nodes have absolute value. Their value changes according to which story they’re included in, and how prominently.
Each of us tell our own stories, including the cultural artifacts relevant to the narrative we’ve chosen. The long tail, the internet-enabled power law that describes “endless aisle” online markets, is an ironic attempt to depict a big picture that no longer exists. With its emphasis on the individual narrative, edge culture more accurately illustrates the current, fragmented state of mediated culture, subcultures, and the way that edge realms and social networks define them.
The members and fans of subcultures—groups united by similar goals, practices, and vocabularies—represent what Etienne Wenger calls communities of practice. To translate differences and aid communication between these communities, they use what Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer (1989) called boundary objects. A boundary object can be a word, concept, metaphor, allusion, artifact, map, app, or other node around which communities organize their overlaps and interconnections. These connective terms emphasize groups’ similarities rather than their differences, allowing them to communicate and reduce confusion between their disparate vocabularies. Boundary objects between different communities of practice open borders once inaccessible, circulating ideas into new territories.
Allusions, references, quotations, metaphors, and other figurative expressions provide the points at which multiple texts, genres, and groups connect and collaborate. “What I see instead of there being one line, many lines,” Eno explains in a lecture from 1992, “lots of ways of looking at this field of objects that we call culture. Lines that we may individually choose to change every day.” Hunting and gathering, picking and choosing, we can each make our own individual mongrel culture.
Mark Granovetter conceived the edge realms of these cultural networks way before we were all connected online, but his insight is all the more relevant today. “Your weak ties connect you to networks that are outside of your own circle,” he explains. “They give you information and ideas that you otherwise would not have gotten.” With our personal media, ubiquitous screens, and invisible, wireless networks, we live in a world of weak ties. You just have to reach out to find the new stuff.
The Medium Picture
This bit is excerpt from my notes for my manuscript, The Medium Picture, about which William Gibson says,
Very much looking forward to reading new Christopher, exactly the sort of contemporary cultural analysis to yield unnerving flashes of the future.
Details are still coming together, but I’m hoping to have some news to share about the book soon. In the meantime, there are excerpts and raw files on its website.
And thanks to you for reading,