In 1967 psychologist Stanley Milgram published his finding that everyone in the world had six degrees of separation. The study was done with 296 volunteers who sent a postcard to a friend who then sent it to another friend and so on, only to find people were connected more closely than they once thought: just a string of six friends.
The idea for the 1967 study originated from a 1929 short story called “Chains” where the concept of being separated by six people was born from a character’s words. Once Milgram published his paper, playwright John Guare created a show in 1990 based off the two works. This of course led to the popular game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
With the rise of the Internet though, especially social networks like Facebook, that number has decreased. A new research of 721 million people who use Facebook yielded the result of 4.74 degrees of separation. Taking a month to complete, the research used algorithms developed at the University of Milan that calculated the average distance between any two users through the use of sample paths.
Of course, the term “friend” is used loosely as the study was done with voluntary Facebook users, and as many know, a Facebook friend may not necessarily mean a deep or close relationship. It’s really more a study of separation between acquaintances, but the resultant numbers are still astonishing.
Dr. John Kleinberg, a computer science professor at Cornell University, says, ‘It’s the weak ties that make the world small.’ Some of the links via Facebook may be closer than others, but that doesn’t make the idea of the world being separated by a chain of only about four people any less impressive. Regardless of the strength of the relationship, human beings are now connected across continents with the rise in social media.
A pessimistic view comes with the results of the recent study. It may seem that people are connected to one another through only four other people, but in reality with the use of Internet and social networking, there comes a psychological distance which really makes us worlds apart.