Everyone is Connected Degrees of Separation: Facebook says– Four; Twitter says– Five; Earlier Study says– Six…

“Just Think About It: Somebody you know knows somebody–who knows somebody else, who knows someone who is very tight with someone who you want to meet– for your next great customer”

Six Degrees of Separation is the theory that anyone in the world can be connected to any other person in the world through a chain of acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries. According to a study by Stanley Milgram, each person on Earth is six degrees from any other person on the planet, which says that; you know someone, who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows me.

Whereas, a study by Facebook in collaboration with ‘Università degli Studi di Milano’ says that the degrees of separation between any one of Facebook’s 800 million users is close to 4, on average, which is much less than the often discussed ‘six degrees of separation’. Within the same country, the degrees of separation between any two users declines to nearly 3.

Although the ‘six apart’ theory hasn’t been proved conclusively, it is generally accepted that with digital age communications, we live in a ‘shrinking world’ where distance between people is less of a barrier. So what has this got to do with customers, people of influence, and increasing your business? Well, if you are only a maximum of six steps away from anyone, and if you know who you want to connect with, then by a series of connections (networking) you can gain access to anyone…

In the article Six Degrees of Separation? Facebook Says Try Five by Deborah Netburn writes: According to the Facebook data team, the number of degrees of separation between people appears to have shrunk — at least for the more than 721 million Facebook users. The company’s data team says that as Facebook has grown over the years, the global population on Facebook has steadily become more connected.

The average distance between two random people on Facebook in 2008 was 5.28 connections, and now it is 4.74. The original ‘six degrees’ finding, published in 1967 by the psychologist Stanley Milgram, was drawn from 296 volunteers who were asked to send a message by postcard, through friends and then friends of friends, to a specific person in a Boston suburb.

By comparison, the Facebook data team examined all 721 million active Facebook users (more than 10% of the global population), with 69 billion friendships among them. The Facebook data team notes that its research, which was conducted via complex algorithms developed at ‘Laboratory for Web Algorithmics of  Universit degli Studi di Milano’ is not fully compatible with Milgram’s research. In the Facebook study each time a connection between two random people was measured, it was always the shortest possible route.

The people in Milgram’s study were just guessing which was the shortest route, and we can assume that at least some of the time, they were wrong. As the report puts it, chances are one of my friends knows one of your friends, as long as we’re all on Facebook.

In the article “Six Degrees of Separation, Twitter Style” by Alex Cheng writes:   Over the past year, we’ve spent a lot of time exploring Twitter, and one of the things we’ve been curious about is how connected people are to each other within the Twitter network.  So, we sliced and diced more than 5.2 billion Twitter friendships (the number of friend and follower relationships) to investigate the connectivity of the Twitter network.

We discovered that Twitter is, in many ways, a network with only five degrees of separation. This means that nearly everyone on Twitter is just five steps away from each other. We describe this separation between two people as ‘friendship distance’.  Of all friendship distances, five steps is the most common, while a friendship distance of four steps is the second-most common. One way to measure the connectedness of Twitter is by looking at the percentage of Twitter users that can be touched by reaching out a certain distance.

Using the Twitter network graph, we discovered that, on average, a Twitter user will encounter 83% of all other Twitter users by visiting everyone’s friends, up to a distance of five steps. If the user visits all friends of friends, up to six steps, 96% of all Twitter users will be covered. This means, the Twitter network has good social connectivity, and that, in theory, a re-tweet does not have to propagate that much to reach a potentially large number of people.

How far does a Twitter user have to roam before they meet a follower of their own? Apparently, it’s not that far. We discovered it only takes 3.32 steps to find someone who is following you (with a standard deviation of 1.25 friendship distances). This means, if you trace your friends, and their friends and so on, in 3.32 steps on average you will discover a follower of your own; there are many small, circular connections on Twitter…

In the article “Six Degrees of Separation? Facebook Says It’s 4.74” by Hasan Guclu writes: It’s a little creepy, but a recent Facebook study shows our connections are becoming a little less coincidental and a lot more scientific. Using fancy algorithms, researchers were able to determine that the average number of links between users is shrinking—the average distance in 2008 was 5.28 degrees, while now it is 4.74. The magic of social networks.

In a feel-good paragraph stuck to the end of the study, Facebook said social networks are “well-connected, in the sense that you can reach anyone from anyone else in a relatively short number of hops, but at the same time, they are very locally clustered, with the vast majority of connections spanning a short distance.”

So even though Facebook users tend to cluster by nationality (84% of all connections are between users in the same country) and by age (even 60-year-olds have mainly 60-year-old friends), the study found that as Facebook grows, it represents a larger and larger fraction of the global population and becomes more and more connected. Although the results aren’t mind-blowing, they’re interesting.  When we meet someone for the first time, we often search for some sort of common ground upon which we can build a conversation and, possibly, a friendship.

Often, this common ground is a place, or a type of music, or a friend. If you’ve ever played ‘the name game’ with a new acquaintance and found that you have a friend in common, you’ve experienced what network theorists call a ‘small world’. The small-world concept implies that we are all connected through chains of acquaintances.

This is often expressed in the famous ‘six degrees of separation’ theory; the idea that we are, at most, six handshakes away from anybody on the planet. This popular concept suggests that all of us are more interconnected than it may seem. The accuracy of the six degrees story is debatable, but the small world that it implies is very real.

Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, said sites such as, Facebook and Twitter had provided a mechanism which allow more people to be in touch with each other at the same time around the world. “I think Facebook and Twitter have allowed people a tool by which they can be in touch with far more people than ever before. However, people may now have more ‘contacts’, but that should not be confused with the number of actual ‘friends’ they have,” he cautioned.

Wiseman said that it would be dangerous to conclude from these studies that people had more real friends because of social networks, and therefore were actually closer to a greater number of people. “I doubt the algorithms, which were used to create this research, took into account how many people out of a user’s list of ‘friends’ were actually people they knew personally. The ‘six degrees of separation’ research was all about people who knew each other and forming a chain. This is loosening that term.”

The Facebook analysts also found that when they just looked at people’s connections in a single country, most pairs of people are only separated by three degrees. In Milgram’s original experiment, he tested the idea that any two people in the world are separated by only a small number of intermediate connections. This gave rise to the ‘six degrees of separation’ theory in popular culture.

In the article “Yahoo Study Seeks Algorithmic Answer to ‘Six Degrees of Separation’” by Miranda Miller writes: Yahoo’s Small World Experiment, led by Duncan Watts and Sharad Goel at Yahoo, aims to conclusively answer the question of ‘degrees of separation’. The topic has been much debated and widely studied, but so far remains unresolved.  In a 2009 paper ‘Small-World Experiments’; Watts, Goel, and Roby Muhamad examined a common problem in ‘small-world’ experiments; ‘high attrition rate’ where, chains fail to be completed. They also highlight the differences between topological and algorithmic small-world hypotheses.

The  ‘Facebook/University of Milan Small World Study’ is an example of a topological study. Researchers calculated the average distance between any two people by computing sample paths between two users using Facebook’s large population: 721 million Facebook users, or over 1/10th of the world’s population. With access to the entire network, they found that the average number of acquaintances separating two people was 4.74.

This gives the impression that the world has become smaller; in the sense that the Facebook results show 4.74 degrees of separation, whereas Milgram’s work pointed to ‘6 degrees of separation’.  The biggest problem people had in these experiments was that most of the chains don’t get to the targets. “Attrition is really making it hard for this to work and we don’t really know why”, says Watts. There are certain types of people who are very good at networking, and there are circumstances that are more likely to succeed, but we still have questions…

The notion that we are connected by some number or degree of separation apart from each other is all very interesting in the hypothetical, but just exactly how does this little bit of trivial speculation get you in touch with that key customer or person of influence who you are looking to establish a connection? Think about some companies you would love to do business with– but at present, you don’t have a contact there.

Based on these experiments, you can say that on average there are four, five, or six people standing between you and some of the most desirable contacts in the business. Maybe it’s about time you conducted a little experiment yourself. Target five or six people who you don’t know–potential customers–people with whom you really would like to have contact.

Select some people you do know, who don’t necessarily know this person(s), but they might know someone who does– or someone who knows someone else who does. Using your first connection point(s); your customer(s) or colleague(s) or your business contact(s); these are people who know people.

Begin the process by leveraging these connections, and remember that there is someone out there that you know, that knows someone, that knows someone… that you want to know. Think about it, key customers and people of influence are a whole lot closer than you think…