social serendipity

Losing social serendipity

The impact of no longer bumping into people

I’m not alone in writing about social serendipity and the importance of weak social ties. In fact, it seems to be the media flavour of the week. With the vaccine rollouts, we are starting to imagine engaging again in chit-chat and questioning if we will remember how to do it. Below I try and break down what social serendipity is, the different types of relationships we build and how we can try and move forwards.

What is social serendipity?

You might know it as bumping into people. Social serendipity is the unplanned moment of social interaction that brings value. The definition of serendipity, according to Collins Dictionary is:

the luck some people have in finding or creating interesting or valuable things by chance

Making social serendipity:

a valuable social interaction that happens unexpectedly or between weak social ties

In restrained social circumstances work calls are diarised and family catch up calls are scheduled. It’s unlikely, however, that you’ve left space to you weak ties; distant family, colleagues you no longer work with, your favourite hospitality person, old LinkedIn contacts….

Why are ‘weak’ social ties so important?

Research has suggested that we need weak ties more than we realise. We can’t survive without them, this is why complete social isolation is so challenging. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Brigham Young University, has found that social isolation increases the risk of premature death from any cause by almost 30 percent.

Weak ties are the ones that create a community. We all share multiple weak ties; visiting the same parks, swimming pools and pubs. Bridges are built between groups of people who are closely knitted together, but not with other groups. Through these bridges, information and ideas can be shared.

We’ve not had to live in a world before where weak ties have been removed. I didn’t even realise I was missing them, instead, I remained focused on the frustration of not being able to see close friends and family. However, weak ties are essential ingredients for living. Once I started reading about the subject, I suddenly became aware of the value I got from crossing paths with another parent in the morning or chatting briefly to neighbours whilst on a run. Professionally I was aware of the importance of ‘weak’ ties. When you work by yourself, a co-working space can save your sanity (and drive your revenue). But I’d failed to adjust my thinking to this pandemic style of living and to measure the impact it had had on my mood.

According to a survey conducted by Mark Granovetter in 1973, around 83.3% of the participants had found a new job through contacts they saw either rarely or occasionally. This indicates how essential weak links can be in the job searching process. This has been replicated through LinkedIn where the majority of referrals and introductions for job searches are made by weak ties rather than our close personal circle.

Do strong or weak ties matter most?

Prof Dunbar, in a BBC article, stated that:

 the biggest single factor affecting health, wellbeing, happiness – even the ability to survive surgery or illness – is the number of high-quality friendships you have.

And there is no doubt that investing in, and maintaining friendships is incredibly important in living a long and happy life. One of the longest studies on human happiness came to this very conclusion:

But the weak ties, known also as bridging ties, due to their breadth and diversity can expose us to new ideas and opportunities beyond what is available in our narrower inner circles.

A variety of connections is key. This is personal opinion as there is evidence for both. But I think the model for relationships is the same as everything else in life:

Have a little bit of everything, but not too much of one thing

Diet, hobbies, exercise, or relationships, variety helps us to thrive, and it is also a great way to naturally maintain balance.

If you’d like to read more about all the ties we form and the pros and cons of each, then I recommend reading this Berkley article.

How lockdown has changed our interactions


Creativity, for some, has exploded during lockdown. There has been more time to draw, write and sing. Some have drawn inspiration from the surrounding challenges. Taylor Swift wrote not one, but two full albums. However, collective and serendipitous creativity has taken a hit.

By this, I mean the ideas that happen from the seed of someone else’s conversation. When you expose yourself to variety, you are more likely to form an original thought. The best thing I took away from readings Where Good Ideas Come From was the concept of embracing diversity. I 100% appreciate that there are digital alternatives to most social interactions, but everything online is categorised. You join a group with specific interests, you have a zoom call with an agenda, you curate the invite list for group calls. All of these things, whilst wonderful in their own right, reduce serendipity.

Amanda Mull, in an NPR interview, when talking about the loss of weak connections says

We lose the opportunity to learn new things, be introduced to new information, to have low-stakes social interactions with people who don’t know all of our flaws and secrets and background. We lose serendipity. We lose an opportunity for joy.

Polarised opinion

We’ve been becoming increasingly divided on opinion, as explained by Tennyson Foss (played by Hugh Grant) in this clip from Death to 2020:

Despite the fact that Tennyson Foss talks nonsense on most topics, he nails the idea that we’ve stopped listening to each other. Our social interactions have become limited and we are now in a physical echo chamber as well as a digital one. We tend to maintain strong ties with people like ourselves and families often (although not always) share similar viewpoints. When these become our sole social conversations, our viewpoint can become narrow.

New friendships

An article in Vox highlighted new friendships that had formed during the pandemic, it covered 4 new friendships that had been sparked by a shared interest online. There are some wonderful things to have come out of the pandemic; closer relationships with neighbours, friendships without geographic boundaries and more time with our immediate family. I appreciate this isn’t true for everyone, but it is important to acknowledge some of the positive shifts that have been forced upon us.

But, the pandemic has also potentially slowed the development of friendships. Weak ties have had no opportunity to develop. Flowing friendships may have died off because of social restrictions and a lack of stability to convert into a pressure-filled FaceTime call. There is a certain level of commitment required to a video call and not all acquaintances, blossoming or not, are ready to step up.

Perhaps the answer to the friendship question will come from Australia and New Zealand where social serendipity, for the most part, has been able to continue whilst the rest of the world hit pause. I’d love to know if we lost friends though lack of nurture, maintained because of increased evening availability or even made more friends because of increased time spent online.

Could social media help improve social serendipity?

Looking at this as a social media specialist, I don’t think so. The algorithm is designed to curate content and trigger engagement. This happens more often when content showing our existing interests or opinion is shared, or when we see content we strongly oppose, triggering an online rant.

Also, as mentioned previously, when we join groups online to find new connections, they are usually interest or topic-driven. Again, this re-enforces our view of the world and reduces the variety of our connections, even if it’s increasing the number of weak ties we have.

Social media when used responsibly has a place for new connections and developing friendships. It can bring us closer together, inform us and inspire us to make a change. But it is unlikely to improve social serendipity.

Online advantages to social interactions

Berkley, in 2014, wrote at length about social media and the different types of social interactions it provides. They referenced studies that showed how communication online can benefit introverts, something that has been echoed recently in reference to Zoom conference calls when mute buttons are employed and everyone has an opportunity to speak.

In the same article, they talked about research demonstrating how using Facebook can help satisfy our need for connection. Again, the use of social media is about balance. This study was in conducted in 2011 and our social media use has evolved considerably. Instagram was a mere speck on the radar and far less research into social media and depression had been done.

One clear advantage of online communication is the ability to control the conversations we engage in. Group chat becoming negative? You can leave (or mute the conversation). A Facebook chat taking a turn you don’t like? You can block the contact. If your social media feed is leaving you demotivated rather than engaged, it is time to review your follows and change what you are absorbing. You do have a greater amount of control over online engagement, but the challenge remains in taking ownership rather than letting platforms and people decide what you consume.

Post pandemic engagement

Technology is relatively new when you put it in the context of human social evolution and we still have fundamental desires when it comes to social interaction. Even the best technology platforms in the world struggle to replicate the joy of a face to face encounter. Whilst we’ve embraced the advantages of technology, I believe that as soon as the masks come off and the barriers come down we will welcome the opportunity for social serendipity.

From the various articles I’ve read, the main crux of the debate is summed up beautifully by Juliana Breines:

it’s important to remember that social capital, unlike economic capital, is not a concrete entity that we hold in our possession, but rather a fluid and ever-shifting network of relationships that need to be nurtured continually. The true value of our social capital may lie less in what we gain from it personally and more in what it allows us to build and create in collaboration with others.

About Good Words Online

This blog was designed to be a home for all the content I’ve created over the years. It is a mix of book reviews, personal reflections and business learnings. There is no definitive way to live or work, we all make our own choices. I in no way think I am right about any particular subject. This is simply about sharing what I’ve learnt and creating an online reminder for myself.

The name, good words, has no religious references. We can’t be good all the time. Each of us will make mistakes. All we can do is try to learn from them and try and attempt to be a little better next time.

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