Decreasing degree of separation?

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by Chua Wei Ling

Most people would have heard about the “six degree of separation”, or if you have yet to, basically it is the theory that everyone is an average of six steps apart – in other words, the statement “a friend of a friend” can actually connect two people in a maximum of six steps, due to introduction from any person. The original concept came out in 1929, and in the later 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram too had set up two experiments to test out the idea, but in recent times, it seems that the degree of separation is actually closer than we think!

Over the last 20 years, digital mediums have entered the foray as part of the factors for the degrees of separation. However, because of the nature of digital mediums, most experiments can only draw from a limited pool of people who are online, and thus, making it difficult for anyone to come to a conclusive answer about how far we are all apart from each other.

In 2001, Duncan Watts re-created the Milgram experiment using email messages instead of physical posts as did Milgram. More than 60,000 senders were tasked with reaching 18 targets, and it was shown that an average of 6 connections was needed to do so.

Fast-forward 10 years later, scientists at the University of Milan studied up to 721 million Facebook accounts (or more than a tenth of the world’s population) and found out that the average distance between any two users was 4.74 degrees apart. Two years later, Taiwanese researchers, using a different algorithm from the previous research, analyzed the connections between nearly a billion Facebook profiles, not inclusive of celebrities with large networks but including people with obscure professions. Users between the ages of 18 to 48 years old and a variety of spoken languages were studied, and it turns out that two people were merely 3.9 steps apart!

What does this tell us then? On the surface, it would seem that people may be more sociable as compared to the past, perhaps driven by help from social media. In a way, digital mediums have brought us all closer together with the ease of it’s usage. However, on the deeper side, perhaps there are more noteworthy issues such as the decreasing population numbers, or even how we are so dependent on social media, nothing is private about anyone anymore. Whatever the case may be though, perhaps it’s slightly heartening to those celebrities’ fans that the superstar you like, may be closer than you think!

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