The six degrees of separation meme has surfaced again, based on new research from Facebook — in collaboration with researchers at the Università degli Studi di Milano — that suggests the average path length from one Facebook user to another has fallen to 4.74, and has been shrinking as Facebook has grown larger.
The N degrees of separation idea was first suggested in a short story by the Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy:
Stowe Boyd, Everything is Different
In Albert-László Barabási’s Linked, the author explains that the origin of the “six degrees of separation” notion that underlies all social networking theory was the brain child of a Hungarian writer, Frigyes Karinthy. In 1929, Karinthy published his forty-sixth book, a collection of short stories entitled Everything Is Different (Minden masképpen van), which is now out of print and apparently lost to us.
Albert-László Barabási, from Linked
The short story collection was a critical failure and soon sank into obscurity. It has been out of print ever since. […] But there is one story, entitled “Lánceszemek,” or “Chains,” that deserves our attention.
“To demonstrate that people on Earth today are much closer than ever, a member of the group suggested a test. He offered a bet that we could name any person among earth’s one and a half billion inhabitants and through at most five acquaintances, one of which he knew personally, he could link to the chosen one,” writes Karinthy in “Lánceszemek.” And indeed, Karinthy’s fictionaly character immediately links a Nobel prizewinner to himself, noting that the Nobelist must know King Gustav, the Swedish monarch who hands out the Nobel prize, who is in turn a consummate tennis player and plays occasionally with a tennis champion who happens to be a good friend of Karinthy’s character. Remarking that linking to celebrities is easy, Karinthy’s character demands a more difficult assignment. Next he tries to link a worker in Ford’s factory to himself: “The worker knows the manager in the shop, who knows Ford; Ford is on friendly terms with the general director of Hearst Publications, who last year became friends with Árpád Pásztor, someone I not only know, but is to the best of my knowledge a good friend of mine — so I could easily ask him to send a telegram to the general director telling Ford that he should talk to the manager and have the worker in the shop quickly hammer together a car for me, as I happen to need one.” Though these short stories have been neglected, Karinthy’s 1929 insight that people are linked by at most five links was the first published appearance of the concept we know today as “six degrees of separation.”
And Now, Everything Is Different
The “six degrees” meme was rediscovered decades later by Stanley Milgram, who engendered an entire branch of science through his groundbreaking investigations into social networking. His initial foray into the field nearly confirmed Karinthy’s magic number five. Milgram’s research was astonishingly similar to Karinthy’s Ford example — getting random people in various Midwestern cities to pass along a letter through their personal contacts, heading toward one of two Massachusetts residents. And after all was said and done, the average number of hand-offs in the successful cases turned out to be 5.5; rounded up, this is the core for the “six degrees of separation” concept.
Another few generations have passed since Milgram’s 1967 experiment, and the principles of social networks have entered the popular mindset. We think of the world as a much smaller place than those that came before us. We are living in McLuhan’s global village, where one person’s actions can lead to a cascade of effects across the Globe: not through some disembodied “invisible hand,” but by the interaction of people who are known to each other. Our ability to influence those that we know means that what we do can propagate through the social matrix that shapes our world, and can open doors, shift political debate, or quell a rumor.
And because we know that this is how the world wags — that even the least networked of us is connected to everyone if he is connected to at least one other person — now, everything is different. So, we have lifted the title of Karinthy’s forgotten book to serve as the initial piece for this journal, dedicated to social networking in business, because now everything is different.
The world of business — where “networking” has been a gerund for decades — is rediscovering the latent power of social networks. Personal and business relationships are being reappraised in light of social networking technology and techniques, in ways that were too costly or simply impossible prior to the twenty-first century.
While the Facebook researchers nodded their heads at Milgrams work, I dug out this old piece and reproduced in its entirety, so that people can see that the idea is much older, and was originally projected to be five degrees, which is the approximate number offered up by this new research. And Milgram’s working hypothesis might just as well have been rounded down to 5, as well.
There is no doubt that as people become more socially connected, as a general rule, the mean path length across the entire world will drop. As that happens, the world grows smaller, and what happens to someone far away can feel as if it was next door.
We can only hope that this will lead to a great sense of community and solidarity, instead of the squabbling and feuding that dominates world affairs.