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Six Degrees on Facebook

by Eva Amsen

There’s a group on Facebook called “Six Degrees of Separation”. It was started by writer Steve Jackson, as research for a novel he was writing. In his book he explored the idea that we are all connected through the web, and he made the group as a little experiment. He invited all his friends on November 28, 2007. Four days later, the group had 200 members. Less than two weeks later, the group hit 1 million, and it’s currently at 4.8 million.

Jackson wrote up a report about it this week, with graphs showing the growth (use arrow keys to scroll if you don’t see scrollbar). Here’s a quote form his report:

“It was never my intention to prove or disprove the Six Degrees theory — after all, I’m a writer not a scientist. I’m happy to accept that we’re all connected, and leave it up to people a lot cleverer than me to argue over the details.” (…)
“Have I managed to contact every single person on Facebook? I like to think so, but unfortunately I have no way of knowing that for sure. The fact is that more than four million of you took the time to join, and that is nothing short of a miracle. As progress marches on, the world gets smaller. That’s inevitable. Whether we’re separated by six degrees or ten degrees or one degree isn’t important. What is important is the idea that we are connected.”

I like so many things about this, I don’t even know where to start… First of all, I like networks and have read (and own, and recommend) both Six Degrees and Linked. Second, I like it when people set out to investigate things on their own, even though they may not be professionally trained as a scientist, so this (albeit uncontrolled) experiment is awesome. Third, I like the ideas of citizen science, and of using existing situations as models for something else, and the data Jackson collected on the growth of his group might actually be of use to someone academically. (See the network books mentioned above for some examples of similar situations.) Fourth, I like it when fiction is based on reality, so the fact that this whole project started as research for a book is quite possibly the coolest part of it.

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1 comment

Eva June 6, 2008 - 10:25 AM

I’m commenting on my own post…
I said this is an uncontrolled experiment, but it’s actually no worse than Stanley Milgram’s original letter experiment! In that case, many of the letters got lost or people just gave up because it was too much work. This might be better, because it only takes a second to join a group. However, I did not invite all my friends after I joined, because I don’t want to hassle them (everyone gets so much spam and other crap already, especially on Facebook.) And many people probably got an invitation but did not join. So there are some weird conditions that stop people from actually making their connections visible here, but the same was true for the original “Six Degrees” experiments, and those were academic.
All “everyone is connected” experiments are hard to monitor, or what you monitor isn’t a reflection of what’s really going on, but altogether it does add up to the conclusion that at least most of us (except for some tiny remote villagers) really are connected. There is also mathematical evidence that backs this up, but I can’t explain that very well. It has to do with the fact that you can look at what certain networks are like, and how they behave, and then it turns out that social networks are similar to networks for which we *can* see all the connections, so the social networks must also be like that.

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