Only a little while after world population officially ticked over to 7 billion people comes a study from scientists at Facebook and the University of Milan claiming that the average number of acquaintances separating any two people in the world is 4.74, down from the previous six as immortalized by the game six degrees of Kevin Bacon (the game is to connect any person in show business to the actor Kevin Bacon in six steps or less). The game was based on the concept of ‘six degrees of separation’, put forward by psychologist Stanley Milgram (he of the infamous Milgram experiment that evaluated the links between obedience and authority).
Published in 1967, the original ‘small world’ experiment drew from a group of 290 volunteers who were asked to send a postcard to a specific person – but route it through a friend and then friends of friends and found that six hops, or 5.2 people, separated any two people. This new study draws from a larger sample size – the 721 million people using Facebook, over 10% of all humans -- and finds that five hops are all that’s needed to connect me to American president Barack Obama.
This study, despite its sampling biases (given that it was limited to Facebook users), is only the latest to suggest that social networks, as we have them now, with computers and the internet, are significantly advantageous. A lot has been said about the increased connectivity that the internet offers us, and how individuals can leverage said ever-widening networks. We can now keep track of hundreds of people, and weak ties can be reinforced by constant Facebook updates about which movie that person you met on vacation that one time saw last weekend, and what she thought about it.
An earlier study conducted by a team of anthropologists and neuroscientists from University College London found a strong correlation between the size of certain brain regions and the number of Facebook friends a person had. The more friends, the bigger the brain – and these regions had no relationship to real-world social networks of these people. Which leads to the question – could social networking be making us smarter?
While that last question is unsubstantiated by any evidence apart from brain size, there is plenty to suggest that virtual social networks have real world consequences. There are applications that ‘measure’ the amount of influence a person exercises on social networks, and a startup that uses data from your social profiles and connections on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter to compute a ‘score’ that tells recruiters and prospective employers how job-fit you are. Opting out looks like less and less of an option.
But there are plenty for whom opting out isn’t a choice at all, it’s inevitable. There are millions who are in danger of being left behind by the communications revolutions because of illiteracy, or poverty or just a lack of access. It is ironic that the very tools that are bringing so many of us closer together are also perhaps widening the gap between us, the haves, and the many multitudes of have-nots. The world’s getting smaller for some of us, but it’s also isolating us from those less well-connected than us, exacerbating the digital divide.