I'm less than 5 steps away from Kevin Bacon, now what?
By Frank Meeuwsen on 26 November 2011
This week, researchers at Facebook and the University of Milan published a study which concludes that the degrees of separation between any two people in the world is no longer the famous six degrees of separation. We are actually more connected than ever. The number has been reduced to 4.7. The study, which measured how many friends people have on Facebook, found that the notion of six degrees of separation had been shrinking over the past three years at the same time as the dominant social network bumped up its userbase. The study itself is unique in itself, the researchers used the actual Facebook data, 721 million active users and a staggering 69 billion friendships among them. This is the largest social network study ever released.
This interests me on multiple levels. For instance, the research uses 10% of the global population. Well, mostly the western population. For instance, in the Soviet Union Facebook is not a large network. V-Kontakte is by far a bigger network. In the upcoming economy of China, QZone is one of the biggest networks with 500 million users. And growing. So yes, I would say that this is a larger study than the Milgram experiment, but to say that “we” as humans are closer together and “the world is smaller” sounds to me like a nice PR spin on this study. Not withstanding that this is an impressive study and will give a lot to talk about for the ccoming months. But let’s not forget there are more worlds than the Big Blue of Facebook.
This study also got me thinking how this changes social research. I am no expert on social research but from what I see on the Crossmedialab and some other studies, it is quite unique to have access to an entire Facebook population. Most researchers have to work with online or offline surveys, partial data and sometimes polluted data from different sources. Again, just a first observation, not a fact in itself. For the first time, researchers had access to the entire Facebook population. This reminds me of the first steps of working with a supercomputer in the sixties and seventies. To have access to these enormous calculating powers of the first servers, you’d had to make a reservations, have a specific timeslot where you could use the computer and do your calculations. To put things in perspective, I’d think that the smartphone you have in your pocket is more powerfull than those first supercomputers.
But this feels like the same first steps again. What if the creation, publication and distribution of API’s got simpler, more powerfull and perhaps more controllable? What if more people could use a larger dataset to do their research on because servers get more powerfull, data gets decentralized through torrent-technology, more people get creative with large datasets. What would this mean for social studies and the way we look at the world?
Interesting times! And where does this leave the famous internetgame Six degrees of Kevin Bacon?