What do “degrees of separation” really mean?

Facebook released new research in February of this year that each person in the world is connected to every other person by an average of “3 and a half hops.” Facebook used its 1.59 active billion users to find that people in the U.S. are connected on average by 3.46 degrees of separation and the world as a whole is connected by 3.57. Here is a picture of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in 2011 at the F8 conference in California in front of a visualization of the social network that Facebook has created.facebook-six-degrees-separation-mark-zuckerberg

The notion that people are connected to each other by “friend-of-a-friend”chain in at most 6 steps was first created by Frigyes Karinthy from Hungary in 1929 and then was further solidified by Stanley Milgram’s experiment in 1963.

I found an interesting academic article written in 2011 by Judith Kleinfeld, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Alaska, that questions the validity and scope of the small world theory. She highlights some interesting points that aren’t well known, like the fact that Milgram had prior unpublished experiments and several unpublished attempts at replication that do not support the theory. She also points out that other disciplines outside of psychology have accepted the theory as truth and that it should remain in the discipline it was founded in. The theory doesn’t address questions like “what type of people are highly connected and what type of people are not?” Lastly, Karinthy points out that the Small World Theory’s astonishing degree of acceptance could be related to the human desire and emotional need to feel connected to others. Perhaps humans are comforted by the idea that it is not by chance that you meet someone, but more so due to the design of our social networks.

With more and more people getting on social media, it will be interesting to see the data that is released and the lengths that people stretch it to. Facebook went from 3.74 degrees of separation in 2011 to 3.57 today and that number will most continue to decrease as more and more people use the product. The questions that psychologists and social network theorists should look to explore are what kinds of people are connected, what kinds of people are not, and in what areas is there high and low connectivity? I believe that answering questions like these could have large significance in how people navigate their own social networks.

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