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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Has social networking reduced our "degrees of separation"?

I’m curious as to how much more accessible everyone is from everyone else in our modern day Web 2.0 age.

Stanley Milgram conducted the first such experiment in the 1960s, which came to be known as the “small world hypothesis”. In the experiment, he sent letters to 160 randomly selected people in Nebraska and Kansas. In the letter was the name and both the home and work address of a stockbroker in Massachusetts. The 160 people were asked to forward their letter such that it eventually reached the stockbroker, either at his home or office. The caveat: send the letter to someone you know on a first-name basis who you think would be more likely to know the stockbroker (or know someone who may know the stockbroker) than you yourself. Each person along the “chain” was asked to add their name prior to forwarding the letter. And, it turned out that the letters reached the stockbroker in an average of six steps, hence the “six degrees of separation” concept. Actually, the term seems to be shared by both Milgram and Fringyes Karinthy, who in 1929, postulated that the world was growing “smaller” due to the amount of networking and social connections such that there were probably at most 5 connections between any two individuals.

Other experiments have since been done tracing emails between randomly selected subjects and a “destination contact”, which also seem to support the six degrees theory. In all the email experiments I’ve come across, the participants are only “allowed” to forward the email to someone they know … no “cold calling” or web searching allowed. So, in a sense, this isn’t much different than the Milgram experiment, so it doesn’t surprise me that the six degrees still holds.

Another interesting concept suggested by Malcolm Gladwell, in his fantastic book The Tipping Point, is that not all degrees of separation are equal because there are some people who are extremely well connected, a term Gladwell calls “connectors”. As a matter of fact, over half of the letters in the Milgram experiment reached their destination through the same three individuals. Gladwell’s conclusion: “A very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those special few.”

However, if we take into account the social fabric that has been weaved together over the past few years with the rise of Web 2.0, perhaps the number of connection points between any two people has dropped. Perhaps the “need” for these super connectors is no longer required to get from any person to another. Of course, I’m certainly raising the specter of doubt over the definition of “know”. In an earlier post, I speculated that we don’t know ourselves as well as we think. How well can we really know someone else, particularly those people we’ve never met in person but only know online? Furthermore, can one argue that a username or avatar is the equivalent of first name / last name?

Interesting thoughts to be sure. So, what I’d like to propose is a new type of experiment that measures the connectedness of our current world as well as the “requirement” for super connectors to draw us together. Perhaps a “starter experiment” would be to see what the average degree of separation is between any two randomly selected people on Facebook or MySpace. In other words, if person S (sample) has n-number of friends registered on Facebook and person D (destination) has m-number of friends (that presumably differ from S’s friends) registered on Facebook, how many “connections” or “degrees” do you need to traverse between S and D? Do this for a large enough sample size and average out the number. I’m sure these sites have the internal information (and technical infrastructure) already in place to perform this experiment. So, two key questions to answer: 1)is it still six degrees?, and 2)is there still a need for “super connectors” to pull us all together?

What are your thoughts?