Many people likely turn to their family members or friends for help when starting a job search. But according to a new study, which looked at how social media and the labor market mesh, it may be more beneficial to skip over our strong connections and consider those on a secondary or tertiary level.
The study, conducted by Sinan Aral, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, along with others from Harvard and Stanford, concludes that weaker social connections on LinkedIn have a greater effect on job mobility than stronger connections. LinkedIn—arguably the social media platform with the most utility for job seekers—boasts more than 830 million members, and can be extremely useful to job seekers (or detrimental, if you’re not careful). The platform has seen an increase in overall users over the past couple of years, with millions of people using it to look for new or better career opportunities.
The new research from Aral, published this week in Science, analyzed data from 20 million of those members over five years. It demonstrates that the best thing many job seekers can do, as counterintuitive as it sounds, is to mine their lesser-known or secondary connections for opportunities—that is, turn to your mutual acquaintances or colleagues rather than your family members or friends.
“The ‘strength of weak ties,’ one of the most influential social theories of the last hundred years, maintains that infrequent, arm’s-length relationships—known as weak ties—are more beneficial for employment opportunities, promotions, and wages than strong ties. Despite having over 65,000 citations in the last 50 years, there have been no large-scale experimental causal tests of this theory as it relates to employment,” said Aral in a statement.
Researchers experimented with LinkedIn’s “People You May Know” tool during a period of time when 6 billion new ties were created, along with 600,000 new jobs. The results of the study “provided experimental causal evidence supporting the strength of weak ties,” the Science piece reads, with a notable caveat: “Although weak ties increased job mobility in more digital industries, strong ties increased job mobility in less digital industries.”
In other words, if you’re not working in a digital industry, it may still be beneficial to mine your personal relationships or close professional colleagues to try and dig up career opportunities first.
The “weaker ties theory” dates back to 1973, when sociologist Mark Granovetter published a paper titled “The Strength of Weak Ties.” The paper revealed that our weak ties tend to be more important when it comes to dredging up new information, such as job opportunities. That’s largely because our stronger ties tend to have the same information or insights that we do—so getting out of our close circle expands our exposure to new information.
Aral’s study lends more credence to the theory and finds that it holds true even on social media networks—with some caveats. For job searchers, it may mean that it’s worth reaching out to your extended network to see what job opportunities may be out there. We may be in a new world of remote work and social media connections, but this study proves that some professional social dynamics hold true roughly 50 years later.