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Six degrees of separation? Facebook says try five

November 22, 2011 |  5:27 pm

Will Smith starred in the 1993 film "Six Degrees of Separation." But Facebook says these days, most people are only separated by five degrees. Sometime in high school or college, your mind was probably blown away when you first heard of the concept of six degrees of separation -- that everyone on Earth is connected on average via no more than six intermediate connections.

Well, prepare for some more mind blowing. According to the Facebook data team, the number of degrees of separation between people appears to have shrunk -- at least for the more than 721 million Facebook users.

The company's data team says that as Facebook has grown over the years, the global population on Facebook has steadily become more connected. The average distance between two random people on Facebook in 2008 was 5.28 connections. Now it is 4.74.

It's like...the world is shrinking, man.

The idea of six degrees of separation was first put to the test in the 1960s by the social psychologist Stanley Milgram. Milgram asked 296 volunteers to attempt to get a message to a random individual living in the Boston suburb of Sharon, Mass. The volunteers were asked to send the message to a personal acquaintance who was more likely than the sender to know the target person.

In the end it took an average of 5.2 people in the chain to get the letter to the stockholder -- or six intermediary people.

By comparison, the Facebook data team examined all 721 million active Facebook users (more than 10% of the global population), with 69 billion friendships among them.

The Facebook data team notes that its research, which was conducted via complex algorithms developed at the Laboratory for Web Algorithmics of the Università degli Studi di Milano, is not fully compatible with Milgram's research. In the Facebook study each time a connection between two random people was measured, it was always the shortest possible route. The people in Milgram's study were just guessing which was the shortest route, and we can assume that at least some of the time, they were wrong.

As the report puts it, chances are one of my friends knows one of your friends, as long as we're all on Facebook.

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-- Deborah Netburn

Photo: Will Smith, left, star of the 1993 film "Six Degrees of Separation." Credit: Myles Aronowitz / MGM

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