Facebook and the Small World Experiment

Since moving to Austin just over four years ago, I’ve been repeatedly beat over the head with how interconnected everyone is here.  From odd coincidences like seeing unexpected people in unexpected places (“Oh, you do improv too?”) to flat out strangenesses, like my best friend and my fiance’s best friend, finding each other on OkCupid as top matches.  The world here feels small and sometimes I wonder if there’s even six degrees of separation between us.

myspace networking Facebook and the Small World ExperimentStanley Milgram (perhaps most famous for the Milgram Experiment), originated the six degrees of separation concept in his small-world experiment.  In the small-world experiment, Milgram sent packages to 160 random people living in Omaha, Nebraska.  He asked these individuals to forward the package to someone they personally knew who may be connected to a stockbroker from Boston, Massachusetts.  The goal?  To figure out how many package-forwards it would take to reach the broker.  The very first package reached its destination in just four days after pass through two intermediaries.  Milgram reported that chains varied in length from two to ten acquaintances (averaging to the now famous six degrees).  However, the study left many folks skeptical, both about the methodology of the experiment and its findings.

So, how do we find the real answer?

Hello, Facebook…

The flaws of Milgram’s experiment methodology can largely be chalked up to the technologies widely available at the time.  Today, the scale and reach of Facebook allows us to, without the use of an unreliable global postal system, find the answer to that core network question – how many connections, on average, are there between two nodes?

Facebook ran the numbers and shared the results on their Facebook Data Team page.  Not only are there fewer than six degrees of separation, but this number is ever shrinking over time.  The average distance in 2008 (worldwide) was 5.28 hops (~4 degrees of separation), while now it’s just 4.74.  Limit this view to just one country, say the United States and we drop to an astonishing 3 degrees (4 hops).

degreesofseparation Facebook and the Small World Experiment

There are, of course, flaws to this methodology as well.  For example, while I may be only 4 short hops away from the likes of President Obama and Lady Gaga in my social networks, I may not actually be close enough to anyone who is close to them.  The Facebook Data Team took this into account as well and found that 84% of all connections are between users in the same country.  Furthermore, there is a strong tendency for younger folks to have more friends and at all ages, it’s common for most of an individual’s friends to be the same age as them.

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What all of this research unveils is the interesting paradox of the world being, at once, both global and local.  Yes, you probably are only 3-4 degrees of separation away from virtually anyone in the world, but your closest connections are still local to you.

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