Six Degrees of Networking

By | August 7, 2008

A recent report by Microsoft researchers had breathed life back into something that looked like a myth: the idea that we’re only six people away from everyone on the planet. Six Degrees of separation, as it’s called, suggested that someone we knew would know someone else who would know someone else who would know someone else who would know someone else who would know the person we’re trying to reach. It’s called the small world experiment, and we like it because it makes the world seem smaller, somehow, more cozy.

That idea is more than 40 years old. And most people had begun to think it wasn’t true. Of course, then, there were only 3.5 billion people on the planet. Now it’s nearly double that. I’m not a mathematician, so I’m not actually sure whether that makes it easier or harder.

Anyway, the idea wasn’t doing terribly well until recently, when researchers from Microsoft gobbled up 30 billion chats on Microsoft’s instant messaging system between some 240 million people around the world and concluded that the average path length between any messenger user and another is 6.6.

What the Microsoft guys have really discovered is that the Internet has created a new kind of connection. The Internet is all about connecting computers to other computers; we just happen to be sitting at their keyboards.

Facebook, for example, is a very efficient tool for turning even the most scatterbrained recluse into a social networker. If you’ve ever used Facebook, you’ll know that it can reassemble the disparate networks of friends, colleagues, relatives and childhood foes alarmingly quickly. I now have 399 friends on Facebook, and they span the globe and a lifetime of boozy lunches and cigarettes behind the squash courts. A little application on the side will constantly nudge me with suggestions for people I might know but haven’t added.

But these networks are about more than recreating the bulging address book of half-forgotten friends you would occasionally send Christmas cards to. Other services, liked LinkedIn, try to leverage connections to build business networks. I have a modest 518 connections on LinkedIn, and another 194 invitations still awaiting a reply, but I have no idea who most of them are. They might be people I once met, interviewed, emailed, or, more likely, contacts of people I once met, interviewed or emailed, or even just people who thought I was a cool guy and wanted to be linked to me.

Of course, they’re not interested in me so much as who I know: And vice versa. If I want to reach someone at the Daily Telegraph, for example, I could reach more than 35 of them through people in my network, who either know someone there, or know someone who knows someone who is there.

I found that simply by typing in the name of the company. It took me 30 seconds and cost me nothing.

The reality is that the Internet makes our networks very efficient, so that the line gets blurred between what these connections actually mean. Are we gathering friends and business connections because we’re interested in these people, or because we want to a) show off or b) start selling them vacuum cleaners or sending them our CV? Perhaps it’s always been like that. There was always someone who seemed keener to know you for your friends than a fascination with your collection of tie-dye t-shirts.

But things are different. Those of us plugged into the net—or our cellphone—for much of the day are already familiar with how we unconsciously layer and maintain our networks—whether it’s on tools like twitter, or Facebook, or Skype, or Windows Messenger. Back in 1967, when the six degrees separation experiment took place, they used letters to explore the connections between people. The quickest took four days: 232 of the 296 letters never reached the destination.

Now we have 100 different ways to connect almost immediately to anyone else on the planet—who happens to be on a network. We may think they’re the same, but they’re different worlds. We’re connected to people, not because of any innate sociability of social skill, but because of the awesome power of the Internet.

That said, some thing never change. The Microsoft study also found that people on instant messaging tend to communicate more with people of the same background. That makes sense. But there was one area where this wasn’t true: cross-gender conversations, as they put it, are both more frequent and of longer duration than conversations with users of the same reported gender. In short, most instant messaging is about flirting. I’m guessing that was probably true back in 1967 too.