Structural Holes And Online Social Networks

A few weeks ago I wrote about the theory of Social Capital, and how that can be applied to online social networks (see end of article for link). Today I want to talk about a related theory called Structural Hole Theory, and explain what implications this theory can have for online social networks like Facebook and MySpace. First, a little background…

Structural Holes Defined

Ronald Burt’s theory of ‘structural holes’ is an important extension of social network theory. This theory aims to explain “how competition works when players have established relations with others” (Burt, 1992), and argues that networks provide two types of benefits: information benefits and control benefits.

  • Information benefits refer to who knows about relevant information and how fast they find out about it. Actors with strong networks will generally know more about relevant subjects, and they will also know about it faster. According to Burt (1992), “players with a network optimally structured to provide these benefits enjoy higher rates of return to their investments, because such players know about, and have a hand in, more rewarding opportunities”.
  • Control benefits refer to the advantages of being an important player in a well-connected network. In a large network, central players have more bargaining power than other players, which also means that they can, to a large extent, control many of the information flows within the network.

Burt’s theory of structural holes aims to enhance these benefits to their full potential. A structural hole is “a separation between non-redundant contacts” (Burt, 1992). The holes between non-redundant contacts provide opportunities that can enhance both the control benefits and the information benefits of networks.

Optimizing the benefits of networks

I will now look at how structural holes can facilitate the optimization of information benefits and control benefits. There are several ways to optimize structural holes in a network to ensure maximum information benefits:

  • The size of the network. The size of a network determines the amount of information that is shared within the network. A person has a much better chance to receive timely, relevant information in a big network than in a small one. The size of the network is, however, not dependent merely on the number of actors in the network, but the number of non-redundant actors. The utility of a network with reference to its size can be described by a function know as Metcalfe’s Law. Robert Metcalfe observed that new technologies are valuable only if many people use them. Specifically, the usefulness, or utility of the network equals the square of the number of users. The more people use a piece of software, a network, a particular standard, a game, or a book, the more valuable it becomes and the more new users it will attract, increasing both the utility and the speed of its adoption by still more users.
  • Efficient networks. Efficiency in a network is concerned with maximizing the number of non-redundant contacts in a network in order to maximize the number of structural holes per actor in the network. It is possible to eliminate redundant contacts by linking only with a primary actor in each redundant cluster. This saves time and effort that would normally have been spent on maintaining redundant contacts.
  • Effective networks. Effectiveness in a network is concerned with “distinguishing primary from secondary contacts in order to focus resources on preserving primary contacts” (Burt, 1992:21). Building an effective network means building relationships with actors that lead to the maximum number of other secondary actors, while still being non-redundant.
  • Weak ties. In his 1973 paper entitled “The strength of weak ties”, Mark Granovetter (Granovetter, 1973) developed his theory of weak ties. The theory states that because a person with strong ties in a cluster more or less knows what the other people in the cluster know (e.g. in close friendships or a board of directors), the effective spread of information relies on the weak ties between people in separate clusters. “Weak ties are essential to the flow of information that integrates otherwise disconnected social clusters into a broader society” (Burt, 1992). Structural holes describe the same phenomena as weak ties because both emphasize the need for entrepreneurs to fill the gap between different clusters and non-redundant contacts. However, structural hole theory goes one step further and stresses that what makes the gap important is not the weakness of the tie but the structural hole over which it spans. Building and maintaining weak ties over large structural holes enhances information benefits and creates even more efficient and effective networks.

To achieve networks rich in information benefits it is necessary to build large networks with non-redundant contacts and many weak ties over structural holes. Some of these information benefits are:

  • More contacts are included in the network, which implies that you have access to a larger volume of information.
  • Non-redundant contacts ensure that this vast amount of information is diverse and independent.
  • Linking with the primary actor in a cluster implies a connection with the central player in that cluster. This ensures that you will be one of the first people to be informed when new information becomes available.

Now, once structural holes are identified and the network is optimized to provide maximum information benefits, an important question is how these benefits can be used to capitalize on the opportunities in the network. Control benefits answer this question. Structural holes not only provide information benefits, they also give actors a certain amount of control in negotiating their relationships with other actors. To understand the role of structural holes in this regard, it is necessary to understand the concept of tertius gaudens. Taken from the work of George Simmel, the tertius gaudens is defined as “the third who benefits” (Simmel, 1923). It describes the person who benefits from the disunion of two others. For example, when two people want to buy the same product, the seller can play their bids against one another to get a higher price for the particular product. Structural holes are the setting in which the tertius gaudens operates. An entrepreneur stepping into a structural hole at the right time will have the power and the control to negotiate the relationship between the two actors divided by the hole, most often by playing their demands against one another.

Where structural holes provide a platform for tertius strategies, information is the substance with which the strategy is performed (Burt, 1992). Accurate, timely and relevant information delivered between two non-redundant contacts at the right time creates an immense opportunity to negotiate and control the relationship between these actors. That is the power of structural holes, and that is why the theory is so relevant for social networks on the Internet.


The different benefits of structural hole theory makes it instrumental in the creation and development of social capital in networks. The information and control benefits described by this theory can identify and expand the intrinsic value of networks. If we want to find the value of online social networks these three constructs — social network theory, social capital theory and structural hole theory — are essential tools.

For example, if we apply these concepts to MySpace or Facebook, we quickly realize it is not the sheer number of “friends” in your network that count, it is the diversity of the people in your network that is most important. If you only have links to people in your immediate group of friends or colleagues, it will be difficult to get new information, since everyone will pretty much know the same things. This is not to say that you have to start adding random people to your network who you don’t know, but it does mean that people with who you have “weak ties” will often provide you with new information and therefore more benefits than your “strong ties”.

These theory also explains why eBay is such a huge success. By stepping into the structural holes between millions of buyers and sellers, the perfect tertius gaudens strategy was created, and it is arguably the best example of the entrepreneurial use of structural holes in the history of the Internet. If you think about it, every Facebook App is a tertius strategy — some are good, some are not. But it shows that there are still a lot of structural holes out there in social networks, waiting for someone to step in and broker the deal…


Burt, Ronald S. (1992). Structural Holes: The Social Structure of Competition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Granovetter, M. S. (1973). “The Strength of Weak Ties.” American Journal of Sociology 78: 1360-1380.

Simmel, G. (1923). The Sociology of Georg Simmel. New York, Free Press.

[On social capital:]