In a research statement that has perhaps not received as much media attention as it deserves, Facebook has declared that it now believes that on average there are only 3.57 degrees of separation between everyone in the world. This appears to conclusively disapprove the much-examined theory proposed by Hungarian playwright Frigyes Karinthy in the 1920’s of Six Degrees of separation.
To take it back a step, degrees of separation basically means the number of things in between something, and something else connected to it. In this case, we are talking about people. Previous estimates would have placed the average degree to reach anyone in the world at 6, and this theory has remained almost constant for a number of years. It is the idea that has been so prominent in society that it has spawned both a film and a play, and is best expressed by a character from the play, Ousia Kitteridge;
“I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find it extremely comforting that we’re so close. I also find it like Chinese water torture, that we’re so close because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection… I am bound, you are bound, to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people.”
Although this theory has been around for decades, Facebook now is claiming that the degree of separation, which already may seem unfeasibly small to some, is actually even smaller than previous wisdom would dictate. In findings published on the Facebook research blog, the team at the Social Media goliath have “crunched the numbers” behind their 1.59billion users to calculate that each individual is connected to another by just 3 and a half people. The amazing findings, actually released in honour of international friends day, show how distance across the globe is being negated as more and more of us join the globally interconnected system of networks that is the internet.
It would be foolish however not to acknowledge the limitations of the findings. Firstly, the research applies only to those on Facebook (which equates approximately a quarter of the world’s population) so thus cannot be extrapolated to everyone else. In addition, many academics believe that the online networks such as Facebook should be considered differently to those in the physical domain full stop. This is because people may interact with people online (even just by befriending them) who they have never actually met. The question that must be asked in examining this research then, is whether a link between people that is purely digital can count when considering the degree of separation between peoples of this planet. If it does, then the power of tools such as Facebook really have brought the world dramatically closer together. If not, then perhaps Karinthy’s theory will live on.