The New Four Degrees of Separation

4 degrees of Facebook

The six degrees of separation are a relic from our ancient past. In a world where Facebook maps the connections between hundreds of millions people, the chain connecting you to any other person on the Earth is now less than four humans long.

Researchers long suspected that social media tools like Facebook have decreased the number of links between any two individuals, but new research from Eman Yasser Daraghmi and Shyan-Ming Yuan of National Chiao Tung University shows “the average number of acquaintances separating any two people no matter who they are even with rare-special features, i.e. those who work in rare jobs, is not six but 3.9.”

It’s this condition of “rare-special features” that makes the research even more exciting. When comparing two people in a highly specific and isolated field, it becomes an increasing challenge to branch out of their personal network and connect to a distant person. For example, the study shows the number of degrees of separation between any individual and an anesthesiologist is closer to 3.9, whereas the people between someone and a Public Relations specialist is only around 3. The magic 3.9 number is more of a worst case quantity. Between average people, the number is closer to 3.2.

The idea of six degrees of separation was first created by Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy in the 1920s. In a short story titled “Chain-Links” Karinthy stated the world was shrinking due to the increasing connectedness of human beings. As Daraghmi and Yuan write in their paper, “despite great physical distances between the globe’s individuals, the growing density of human networks made the actual social distance far smaller.”

In the 1950s, Ithiel de Sola Pool and Manfred Kochen tried to solve for the number of connections mathematically. Though they were able to articulate the question (given a set N of people, what is the probability that each member of N is connected to another member via 1, 2, 3…and n links?) they never found an answer even after 20 years of working on the problem.

American sociologist Stanley Milgram created a way to test the theory in 1967. In what he called the “small world problem” he randomly selected individuals in the Midwest to send a package to someone in Massachusetts. The selected senders were only told the person’s name, occupation, and general location. In order to get the package to the person, they had to send it to the person they most likely believed could get it to the final recipient. The person who the package was handed off to was supposed to do the same, and so on, until it reached the target. Milgram’s experiment showed the number of intermediary connections ranged between two and ten, with five and six being the most common. These findings were published and thus the phrase “six degrees of separation” was born.

The six degrees theory has been tested multiple times since Milgram popularized it. It was the central theme of a play by John Guare (1990) and later into a movie starring Will Smith (1993). In 1994, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” became a popular parlor game wherein people would list certain actors and try to connect them to Kevin Bacon in less than six jumps.

Daraghmi and Yuan used advanced tools and a database of 950 million people and their connections pulled from Facebook to conduct their experiments. They developed techniques to eliminate redundancy and fake accounts and even separated out celebrities from the calculations (as they would skew the data). With the data at their disposal, they created the most comprehensive evaluation of the theory to date.

Whether you’re looking for a plumber, a Chinese translator, or a guy named Todd in Oklahoma, they’re now only 4 people away. Despite the world’s population of 7 billion people, we’ve never been closer to one another.


Pacific Standard

  • sopranospinner

    Separation is spelled wrong in your title.

Commentary Ticker

  • Data Knows Best: Greatest TV Shows Get Ranked and Graphed
    March 26, 2014 | 10:50 am

    Every argument is better with charts and graphs. Sometimes a little linear regression can provide more insight than a long-winded report. GraphTV tests that theory by plotting the ratings of popular television shows. It all started with Breaking Bad. Data guru Kevin Wu was watching its fifth and final season and couldn’t help but think [...]

  • A Coin-Inspired National Spirit, Hopefully
    March 20, 2014 | 11:56 am

    The Lakota Nation, a group of seven Native American bands in North and South Dakota, voted to make a Bitcoin-like crypto-currency called MazaCoin their official currency, according to Forbes. Programmer and Lakota activist Payu Harris believes that the coin will help the Lakota people gain sovereignty over their land. “To be a truly independent state [...]

  • Smartguns and the Promise of Progress
    March 3, 2014 | 9:50 am

    With the recent Sandy Hook elementary school shooting (and the 44 school shootings since) still relatively fresh in our collective minds, and with Congress empirically unable to do anything to stop gun violence at all, it seems slowing, if not stopping, the gun violence epidemic has fallen on a strange coalition of gun manufacturers, Silicon [...]

  • Watch: Movies Without Imaginary Friends
    January 28, 2014 | 12:56 pm

    If you seriously haven’t watched Fight Club yet (or read the book by Chuck Palahniuk) stop and go do that right now. You’re fifteen years late to the craziest party. Okay, you’ve watched it now? Onwards. A visual effects specialist in New York accelerated himself to Internet fame in mid-January when he edited Tyler Durden [...]

  • The Racism of “Racism”: The Complicated Origins of the Term
    January 17, 2014 | 12:27 pm

    “Racism,” like race, was invented. The term “racism” has done a lot of heavy lifting for anti-racism advocates, helping to frame anyone discriminating by race as misguided. Just as with classism or sexism, not only does the word racism give name to an evil, it helps to create the thing as evil in the first [...]

  • RSSArchive for Commentary Ticker »

Join our mailing list!

Trending on The Airspace