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Connectivity is like vanilla extract, except when it's like a pick-up truck.

 

Vanilla first...while we were making a cake for her 6th birthday, my daughter asked me: If vanilla extract is so good, why don't we use more than just a teaspoon? I explained that some things are good in small amounts but not in large ones. (I'm sure I will have to re-explain this when she is an adolescent.)

 

Connectivity is like that, in both its technological and social manifestations. We are a social species, and the ability to connect to others is deeply appealing, so tools and techniques that make connecting easier make us connect more. (Facebook's business model in one sentence.)

 

The problem is that too much connectivity can have paradoxically anti-social effects. There's always someone new to meet, some new conversation to join, some new group to be part of, but if we avail ourselves of all the connectivity, we end up with lots of weak ties ("You have 1,536,755 friends!") while weakening our strong ties – the people to whom we're deeply, persistently connected.

 

Connectivity, like vanilla extract, generally flavors life best in small doses, leaving us with a balance of weak ties and strong ones.  The strong ties rely on something social scientists call "bonding capital", that form of social capital that relies on deeper, longer lasting relationships. Bonding capital deepens trust and strengthens communities. If that were the only story, society would be better off if we all lived and worked in small clusters rich in bonding capital. That isn't, however, the only story. Having a small and stable group of bonded friends or associates is an essential component of human life, but it also creates risk of groupthink, while minimizing exposure to novel ideas.

 

There needs to be some way of moving new ideas into existing groups and some way of taking ideas form those groups and spreading them elsewhere. Fortunately, there is – the highly connected individuals among us who help keep ideas flowing, the people Gladwell calls super-connectors. Which is where the pick-up truck comes in.

 

When I was growing up, a friend of the family who owned a pick-up truck said he'd only learned one thing from the experience. Most people don't actually want to own a pick-up truck, but they want to know someone who does. These few super-connectors among us create “bridging capital”, the kind of social capital that involves making novel introductions among otherwise disconnected groups. The tools we have today provide the technological means for all of us to be super-connectors. But the social skills and drive to do so remain rare and unevenly distributed. You may not want to be a super-connector, but you want to know at least one, or you risk getting too comfortable thinking that your worldview is the correct one.

 

Bridging and bonding capital are, obviously, in some tension with one another – novelty vs. familiarity, Chat Roulette vs. Yahoo Groups.  We're in the middle of an explosion in bridging capital, thanks to a medium that makes proliferation of weak ties almost effortless, but the trick to making connectivity work is knowing when to use which strategy.

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