Six degrees of separation is now three

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I have just read a report by O2 which looks at ‘degrees of separation’ and shows that where once there were six degrees of separation connecting any two people on the planet, that number was now three. We are more connected than ever before, the theory goes, it is easier than ever before to build and keep a network of connections.

The original theory of six degrees of separation was developed in 1967 by US psychologist Stanley Milgram. His Small World experiment choice people in three US cities (Omaha, Nebraska and Wichita) and asked them to make a connection with people in Boston, Massachusetts. They had to send a package to the target person only by sending to people they knew and asking them to send it on to people they knew. The work showed that the number of connections needed to pass the parcel to its destination was six. Thus was born the theory of six degrees of separation, which has been tested many times, including by countless people proving that they are only six degrees from actor Kevin Bacon.

The O2 study tried to replicate this making use of modern technology rather than the postal system. The researchers asked people selected randomly in unknown destinations across the globe. The people had some connection to their target (a shared hobby, interest, sport, music or sexuality) and it was found that on average only three degrees separated the two people. O2 give an example of the connections they studied:

One of the respondents Katrina, 27 from Brighton, is a classical musician and leads a jazz band. She was asked to make contact with a Japanese jazz singer, Natsuo Murakami, halfway across the world. She contacted her record producer in Berlin via an email. He called his opposite number in Tokyo who had a register of all jazz singers in the country. Therefore making the link from Katrina to Natsuo in three personal steps.

O2 suggest that this reduction is due to people being more connected now than ever before. I think that this may be partly the case, or at least that there are now more ways in which I can stay connected with people. Whereas in Milgram’s day I could have stayed in touch only with those people I saw regularly, wrote to or had telephone numbers for and spoke to, now it is easier for me to have many ‘friends’ and to stay in touch with them. I could meet somebody once, make contact with them on Facebook or LinkedIn and keep them in my friendship group.

So to some extent it is true that we are connected to more people now than ever before, or at least that it is easier to stay in touch with people. But I think the real reason may be the fact that the O2 study looked for connection between people who shared similar interests. We have seen before that online communties and social networks help people with similar interests to connect with each other (see post here). So not only is it easier to keep in touch with people through these online communities, but they are more likely to be people that you share a common interest or experience with. I am not surprised that two musicians can find each other with only three degrees of separation, and would expect the proliferation of issue, experience and interest online communities to mean the same closeness is felt for people with other shared experiences or interests.

So social networking and increased connectivity is making us closer, but more importantly, it is making us focus more around issues and experiences rather than locations. This is really the power of online communities and something that the report from O2 shows. Our friends and connections no longer have to be based on mere geography, but can be based on experiences and interests, shared goals and passions. I may not know the people who live on my street, but I do know people who share the same interests with me. And in the end I can probably have a more meaningful friendship based on shared interests than on mere geography. It’s good to know from this O2 study that such people are now closer to me than ever before.

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