Ronnie05's Blog

Facebook & the four degrees of separation (Vasudev Kutumbakam)

Posted in Social context, media and advertising by Manas Ganguly on November 23, 2011

Vasudev Kutumbakam (The Whole world are descendants of Vasudev (the Hindu God Krishna)). Facebook revisited this premise and has taken it a step further by actually measuring the degrees of separation between two unknown individuals. In the 1960s, social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s “small world experiment” famously tested the idea that any two people in the world are separated by only a small number of intermediate connections, arguably the first experimental study to reveal the surprising structure of social networks.

With the rise of modern computing, social networks are now being mapped in digital form giving a hugely scalable, accessible, immediately personal and almost idiotically simple networking platform.

The idea of ‘six degrees of separation’ — that any two people are on average separated by no more than six intermediate connections — was first proposed in 1929 in a short story by Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy, and made popular by the John Guare play and movie, Six Degrees of Separation. The idea was first put to the test by Stanley Milgram in the 1960’s. The idea was first put to the test by Stanley Milgram in the 1960’s. Milgram selected 296 volunteers and asked them to dispatch a message to a specific individual, a stockholder living in the Boston suburb of Sharon, Massachusetts. The volunteers were told that they couldn’t send the message directly to the target person (unless the sender knew them personally), but that they should route the message to a personal acquaintance that was more likely than the sender to know the target person. Milgram found that the average number of intermediate persons in these chains was 5.2 (representing about 6 hops). The experiment showed that not only are there few degrees of separation between any two people, but that individuals can successfully navigate these short paths, even though they have no way of seeing the entire network.

While 99.6% of all pairs of users are connected by paths with 5 degrees (6 hops), 92% are connected by only four degrees (5 hops). And as Facebook has grown over the years, representing an ever larger fraction of the global population, it has become steadily more connected. The average distance in 2008 was 5.28 hops, while now it is 4.74.

Interestingly enough, the study also proves that individuals are both well-connected in the sense that you can reach anyone from anyone else in a relatively short number of hops, but at the same time, they are very locally clustered, with the vast majority of connections spanning a short distance. The study, found that 84% of all connections are between users in the same country. But this isn’t the only dimension along which people tend to cluster. The study concludes that People tend to have a similar, albeit typically smaller, number of friends as their neighbors, and tend to be about the same age. Somewhat surprisingly, even for individuals aged 60, the distribution of their friends’ ages is sharply peaked at exactly 60.

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