Six Degrees of Separation on Facebook

Posted By BrokenClaw on August 16, 2009

The idea behind six degrees of separation has been around for nearly a century, but it was John Guare’s play and film of the 1990s that brought the actual phrase into public consciousness. Put simply, the concept is that any two people in the world can be connected by jumping from one’s friends, to their friends, to their friends, etc., with no more than five intermediary steps, hence, six degrees of separation.

Over the years there have been several research experiments designed to test the concept in different settings. The consensus seems to be that the hypothesis has some validity, although some researchers contend that the number six is scientifically arbitrary. In my own reading on the subject, I have never been able to pin down exactly what constitutes a “friend”. Some writers use the term “acquaintance” instead. Obviously, the broader the definition, the more connections you have.

I think most people would define a friend/acquaintance as someone you know by sight and name, whom you have met in person, who also knows you by sight and name. For instance, I know Tiger Woods by sight and name, but we’ve never met, and he doesn’t know me. I know the mayor of our town by sight and name, and we’ve met in person, but I’m sure he doesn’t know me. So I don’t think Tiger and the Mayor would count as friends in my six degrees.

On the other hand, when I was in high school, I knew (using the definition from the previous paragraph) all 160 people in my class and at least another hundred students from other classes, sports teams, and extracurricular activities. I’m sure there was at least another hundred people I knew as relatives and as other people from my community. When I went to college, in two different states, I probably met and knew several hundred more people. While working summers at Hersheypark, I made dozens of new acquaintances every year. All told, I think I’m safe in saying that when I was in my youth and early adulthood, there was close to a thousand people who, at one time or another, fit the definition of friend/acquainance.

What brought this topic to mind was that I recently attended my high school reunion, and several of my classmates encouraged me to join Facebook. While poking around, I came across a Facebook (fb) “group” called Six Degrees of Separation (actually there are several such groups on fb), which purports to be a six degrees experiment. They encourage people to join the group and then invite their friends to join the group, and then their friends, etc. with the intent of showing how all fb users are connected by common friends.

I have three problems with this experiment.

First of all, no matter how popular fb becomes, you’re never going to get my thousand friends. Okay, so maybe their intent isn’t so global. Maybe they just want to try the six degrees of fb.

My second problem is, if they really want to document friend connections, shouldn’t they limit membership in the group to people who already have a friend in the group? In that way all the people in the group would already have a connection and you could draw real conclusions. The way it is now, with anyone joining, you just end up with a bunch of disjointed subsets of people, who aren’t connected in any way to the other subsets. Having a large number of people in the group doesn’t prove anything. I imagine what they are trying to do, by allowing anyone to join, is to grow the group more quickly, with the hope that eventually a connection will be made for everyone. Well, that brings me to the third problem I have with this experiment.

Doesn’t Facebook already have the complete data? Couldn’t fb do their own analytics with the friend connections? They wouldn’t have to rely on voluntary participation. It seems to me that fb could do their own analysis of the friend connections. They could look at the friends database and calculate every user’s complete set of connections. They could even post it on each home page, like “You have 461,874 friends in your Six Degrees of Separation.”

Now that I think about it, maybe I’ll write the script myself. Let me fire up my GW-BASIC interpreter and see what I can do. Wait, I might need Turbo Pascal for this one.

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