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The value of the hidden social network

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The value of the hidden social network

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The value of so called weak connections is quite well known in the online world, but how powerful is it in the offline world?  Researchers from Singapore have explored the importance of what they term familiar strangers.  These are the people we see each day on the train to work or in our local supermarket each weekend.  They’re the people who provide a valuable source of social potential as neighbours or friends.

We know a reasonable amount about our intentional connections, but much less about our so called hidden social network.  Lijun Sun from Singapore set out to change that by analysing the passive interactions between the 3 million or so users of Singapore’s bus network.

Poring through this data enabled them to see how often so called in vehicle encounters occured, in which two individuals are on the same bus at the same time.  For instance, in one particular week some 18 million of these encounters were recorded, with strong patterns of repitition emerging.

What’s more, the data revealed that 85% of these repeated encounters happened at the same time each day, with morning encounters more common than afternoon ones.

The researchers found that these encounters typically occur because we are creatures of habit, and these habits can quickly become synchronised with other people.  The more regular your behaviour, the more likely you are to meet the same people each day.

What I found interesting though was the value these relationships have for society.  The researchers suggest that the connections that evolve between these familiar strangers grows stronger over time.  In other words, the more frequently we see that person on the train each morning, the more likely we are to become socially connected to one another.

With things like the Oyster Card here in London it should be fairly easy to replicate this kind of study in cities around the world, which would give some insight into the ties that bind a community together.

London commuters are famous for their unsociable demeanour on public transport, but this research goes to show that there is much that binds us together with our fellow travellers.  So maybe next time you see a familiar face on your travels, you can say hi and get to know them a bit better.

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