4.74 Degrees of Separation?

We all know that Facebook is pretty popular to say the least, but new research by Facebook and the University of Milan now finds that instead of the popular conception that there are six degrees of separation between us, there are actually 4.74.

The original research for the “six degrees of separation” finding comes from research published by the psychologist Stanley Milgram (also known for the infamous Milgram Experiment) in 1967 who used 296 volunteers in his research. This experiment was called the “Small World Experiment”. The latest Facebook research by comparison used 721 million Facebook users’ data and shows that the world, in this respect, is now even smaller.

The “degrees of separation” mentioned in both refers to the number of people, on average, between each of us. For example, Milgram asked each of his volunteers to send a postcard through friends (and friends of friends) to a specific address in Boston. These people could use anybody they knew (on first name terms) to relay the postcard, choosing somebody they thought was more likely to know the destination address. By using a combination of a roster of names in the chain and additional postcards sent from each person in the chain back to Harvard, Milgram was able to determine the average path length between the volunteers and the address in Boston. The results averaged at around 5.5 or 6, giving rise to the common phrase “six degrees of separation”.

The new study, by comparison, uses Facebook users’ profiles and the number of links between arbitrary profiles was analysed. Where the original research used 296 initial subjects, the new study has access to 721 million individual profiles, a massive increase in sample size.

The question that I ask from this study is: is the world really smaller, or do people now have a different definition of a friend? I am not a fan of Facebook, but even my grossly under-used profile has over ninety friends. If you asked me to list people I would consider friends, acquaintances or relations in real life this number would be significantly lower. Some people have hundreds of friends on Facebook, some even considering gaining friends a sort of competition. So how valid is this new figure of 4.74?

On the other hand, access to this huge database of information is incredibly valuable to analysts. I’m sure Milgram would have loved to have got his hands on this wealth of data back in 1967. So is Facebook all bad? Whilst I am always very reluctant to give Facebook any more data about myself (even though this is harder than it seems), I can see the worth of this data for some purposes.

So is the world really smaller? Although we now all “know” more people and have much more ways to communicate, maybe the idea of friendship has been diluted slightly?