Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Degrees of Separation Are Likely More Than 6, Especially in E-Mail Age

Posted by shannonclark on August 12, 2003

Degrees of Separation Are Likely More Than 6, Especially in E-Mail Age(note registration required)

Interesting article on updated study of the “Six Degrees” phenomenon.

Speaking personally, I am very convinced that I am connected to anyone else in the world by a very small chain. In part, however, this is because I am already directly connected to thousands of people, truly more like tens of thousands. And through them, I know that just “one degree” away from me are a great deal of people and at two degrees I can reach a very large portion of the world.

This is because in many ways I am a bit of a nexus, my interests, social circles and other networks cross many non-overlapping groups. Furthermore, I have been online a very very long time, and thus know a lot of people who have also been online for quite a while. In addition, my network (just talking about people who I know and are likely to remember me) is very diverse – in terms of ages, geographies, races, educational levels and many other factors. While large portions of it do skew towards the technology sector, I also know many artists, writers, financial people, business people, lawyers, doctors, CTA workers, machinists, horse carriage drivers and many other people.

Have I kept in contact with everyone I “know” – not at all, but I do have quite an active and vibrant network, one which is is growing every day.

To take a few quick examples:

– one of the professors cited in the article wrote a book that very close family friend was a reader of (and fellow professor at Notre Dame)

– Multiple people I know very well are only one degree of connection away from members of Bush’s cabinet or staff (one friend of mine was a classmate of John Ashcroft for example)

– A family member has been to a new year’s eve party with Madonna (at Madonna’s house, also been out for sushi with her while she was filming “A league of one’s own”)

i.e. just off the top of my head I have a short connection to some of the more difficult to reach people in the world. (I have communicated personally with senior people at Microsoft, another member of a group I am active in used to report to Bill Gates directly – so again a few degree connection to a fairly hard to reach person).

My point is that while I know my own network is unusual, I don’t think that I am radically atypical, though I know I have a larger network than most. If you consider the number of people that an average person knows (or is known by) – counting from elementary school, junior high, high school, family, college, and the typical 3 to 5 different jobs, as well as religious groups, summer camps, neighbors, and others, it is not hard to see that most people if really pressed have a network of weak links that is in the thousands of individuals.

From that, consider how many of those are circular networks – i.e. networks that are just a tight bunch of connections with few “outsiders” (consider a commune as an extreme example – the groups of families living there would all be tightly connected, with possibly few if any other currently active connections – however each family member (other than children perhaps) would still have a large network of family and friends from pre-commune days…)

This points to a factor that I am not sure any of the studies have considered tracking – a timeline of connection.

i.e. there is a difference between those members of my network with whom I have communicated in the past week from those in the past month, the past year, and those I have not spoken to in over 2 years (or in extreme cases a decade or more). While all may be part of my network, I would have a harder time communicating with and just locating those with whom I hae ceased being in highly active communication – in many cases I would have to ask for help from either third party resources (the phone book) or from other more active members of my network who may have been in contact with them more recently.

(to illustrate this point, say I wanted to reach Bill and Hillary Clinton. I know that my old next door neighbor is a fellow Rhodes Scholar and at one point in time dated Hillary (before she met Bill), and that he has and is still very active in Democratic politics. However, I also know that they recently moved. So to contact them I would either have to look up their contact info in a phonebook or I might ask my parents who are closer to them for their current contact information.)

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