It was actually Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy who first coined the idea of six degrees of separation. But the 1993 Fred Schepisi movie brought the concept firmly into popular culture, the idea that we are all of us not more than 6 acquaintances from another other human being.
This is actually a far more awesome and all encompassing idea, when you think about it, from the parlour game associating just a handful of Hollywood actors – actually our networks span the globe, now more so than ever, in our interconnected world. Of course these statements can only ever be theoretical, but the interesting thing is how the averages have kept pace. When Karinthy first identified the idea the world population was under 2 billion people, it’s now more than 7 billion.
Over 1 billion of us alive today share a single social network – Facebook, of course, even if we are not all friends. Facebook announced in 2011 that the typical level of separation on the site is 3.74 – that is, we are less than 4 other users away from any other user. Not surprising really when you run the numbers, and this explains the phenomenon of viral marketing . when you can get people to share a marketing message with their friends, the scaling effect is exponential and extremely powerful. If I have 300 friends and share something with my friends each with 300 friends, and their friends like it as well…. You get the picture.
Various people have put the ‘6 degrees’ theory to the test, and in the 1960s Milgram’s famous experiments involved sending out letters to the wrong recipients, with polite requests to ask that the person receiving helped the letter along by passing it on to someone who might be likely to know the named person. Nowadays our networks are bigger, the global population is bigger, but the ratios stay surprisingly consistent.
I suppose it’s a comforting idea in a busy and fragmented world, that we are mere handshakes from everyone else in some way. Having been the butt of the joke for years, in 2007 the actor Kevin Bacon launched SixDegrees.org, a web site that builds on the popularity of the “small world phenomenon” to create a charitable social network, in partnership with the nonprofit Network for Good, AOL, and Entertainment Weekly. The idea is to inspire giving to charities online, by engaging that feeling of interconnectedness and fellow feeling, across frontiers, lifestyles and existences. They sell gift cards that people can buy for friends to redeem as a donation to their own favourite charity, a view of philanthropy that depends upon that connected principle – if I let my connection choose to give to their best cause, someone (possibly a complete stranger) will support mine.
The business social networking site LinkedIn also uses the concept of reaching out to the network, as a its main offering. Apparently my 700 connections link me to over 15 million connections, and over 22 thousand have joined ‘my network’ (which I believe is defined as direct connections of my connections) in the past 2 days.
Whenever you search for someone on LinkedIn you are told how closely you are connected, and it’s rare to find anyone you might have any professional interest in whatsoever that is more than 3 connections away. The platform’s premium InMail service lets you send a direct private message to anybody via the network – in an echo of Milgram’s postal experiments of decades past, you can ask people you know to pass your message to people they know, in the general direction of the target. I haven’t made much use of this service myself – from a business development point of view it feels a bit needy! – but from a connectivity point of view it seems to work OK. LinkedIn doesn’t have the same numbers that Facebook does, languishing merely in the hundreds of millions rather than billions, but it serves a different purpose and people use it in different ways.
Whilst we are batting huge numbers around, how about the world wide web, how interconnected is that? It is estimated that there are over 1 trillion web pages online, over 14 billion sites, with thousands of new documents added daily – but most containing links to other pages (hence the ‘web’ concept).
A recent paper published by the Royal Society cites research by a physicist Albert-László Barabási – interestingly the circle has come back round to another Hungarian – who’s complex mathematical research suggests that each of these pages is on average no more than 19 clicks from every other web page out there. This idea has endured for many years as the world wide web has grown, but like the 6 degrees with people remains surprisingly consistent despite the scale.
Do these facts and figures make you feel more connected to the global social and technological networks that surround us, or more overwhelmed by the sheer numbers involved? Tweet me @casslar and let me know…
Published in Costa Blanca News, 1st March 2013