Photo credit: Pabak Sarkar

Only Connect

Designing for Weak Ties and Strong Relationships

It’s hard to miss the collective anxiety, in headline after clickbait headline, about how technology is hurting our relationships. Sitting at the dinner table, we are distracted by our phones rather than paying attention to the people right in front of us. We are too busy posting photos to enjoy vacationing with our friends. At the park with our children, our attention is elsewhere.

On a visceral level, it bothers us to see people looking at screens rather than looking at human beings. Sherry Turkle’s research suggests that technology does isolate us from each other. And that narrative resonates. So we aim for less screen time to truly connect. More time talking in person. Or on the phone, a more socially acceptable technology.

And yet, we are more connected than ever. We are connected to people who might have been lost to us otherwise. Sharing mundane details over Facebook may foster more intense conversations when we do get together. Laughing over an inside joke or the latest meme strengthens a bond. Technology deepens connections, too. How can we resolve this paradox?

The problem with the negative narrative is its backwards focus.

Forward, Not Backward

Carrying a screen in our hand is not the future of technology. Embedding screens in the objects in our environment, how we might imagine the Internet of Things, is probably not the future either. I hope not. It’s critical to know what we should avoid re-creating but we also need to turn our attention to what is worth creating.

In my own research about what makes us happy about our lives with technology, I bump up against misery. As a researcher, I often think about Brené Brown researching resilience and having to confront vulnerability. The more I learn about happiness, the more I uncover what makes us unhappy.

When it comes to our relationships, there are a few types of distortion that make us particularly, and predictably, unhappy.

Social Comparison

Comparison makes us miserable no matter the context. Research suggests that depression can be linked to social media use, especially when it involves social comparison. Technology presents more opportunities for comparison, and makes the comparison more vivid.

Faking It

We all do it. We stretch the truth a little or simply omit details to put on a positive front. Danielle, a teen who tracked her highs and lows with technology for me, put it succinctly. “There is me, and then there is the Facebook me who is just slightly better.” And yet, rather than feeling aspirational in a positive way, this disconnect just leaves us feeling miserable. If only I could be that person. Or I wish I could share the real me. Or I hate having to stay in character on each platform.


The flip side of being connected is feeling that we are not connected enough. As much as we might try to embrace the joy of missing out, we still fear missing out. Add in the Pollyanna effect, where we are all respond more positively in groups, and the thing we are missing seems all that much more appealing.

Echo Chamber Effect

Personalization has its downsides. Eli Pariser’s filter bubble TED talk points out what you see, or don’t see, every day. Google shows dramatically different search results based on our behaviors and other data, whether logged in or not. Facebook’s algorithm tailors your newsfeed based on the posts you like and who you interact with, creating a de facto inner circle. It narrows our perspective, producing echo chamber effect. Rather than feeling more connected, the result can be the opposite.

So how can we counteract the negative impact technology seems to have on our relationships with each other? How can we foster positive connection?

The Strength of Weak Ties

Part of what makes people happy in cities are mixed-used blocks, according to Charles Montgomery’s experiments. Why? Because people like people. And not just our family and close friends.

Call it weak ties or consequential strangers, these loose connections broaden our range.

People who are a little bit outside of our inner circle challenge our assumptions. Whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, studies show weak ties makes us happy in a meaningful way.

The challenge then is how to introduce weak ties in design. So far, I’ve seen a few positive examples.

New Yorkers actually make people happy

Real Stories

Beyond just the presence of of consequential strangers, people are happy when they are reading honest stories of real people on sites like xo jane or Humans of New York. Not only does reading someone’s personal story foster connection, but it also leaves things open. People can imagine themselves in the story.

Authentic Presence

Rather than anonymized comments, or even reviews where identities are a click or two away, some of the happiest moments people reported were actually seeing real people in reviews. Think Geek and Modcloth are two sites where reviews show people embracing their unique selves. The effect ends up to be similar to a busy city block.

A genuine thrill of connection and self-esteem

Conscious Kindness

Citizen science and micro-volunteering apps engender this principle. Be My Eyes is the best example I’ve found so far. Not only does it give people an opportunity to be kind, but encourages a moment of personal connection.

Closer Close Connections

If there is one thing tied to happiness, it is strong relationships. Research suggests that relationships, from siblings to spouses to close friends, are linked to a longer life and greater resilience. To be sure, technology can distract us from the people we care about most. Technology can also sustain relationships. Consider a few ways this manifests in design.

After answering the questions, the profile felt more like me

Humanized Algorithms

Crystal creates nuanced personality profiles by analyzing social media profiles, posts, and other publicly available data. But it also give you the opportunity to answer questions and shape your personality profile. The result is potentially richer communication with strong connections and weak ties alike. Combining human intelligence with artificial intelligence makes the algorithm more transparent, giving us control.

Twitch is as much about the game as it is about connection.

Shared Experience

At first, I admit that I really didn’t get Twitch. After observing people using it though, it’s clear that it not only introduces weak ties, but it also strengthens friendships through shared experiences.

A Bridge Between Real and Virtual

Timehop and Facebook’s On This Day are clued in to an important part of strengthening relationships—creating a bridge between real world and virtual. Relationships tread this line every day, and technology should create a new convergence.

Design for Weak Ties and Strong Connections

Technology mediates our relationships with other people. It’s time to shift our focus from only the negative impact of technology toward the positive. Rather than requiring a retreat from technology to sustain relationships, let’s design better ways to support our social selves.


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