When you consider the whole concept of six degrees of separation, it can make the world seem like a pretty small place. After all, the idea that there are as few as five people linking you with someone you never met on some distant continent is kind of amazing. And now, thanks to the wonders of social networking, that connection has shrunk from six degrees of separation to four.
Researchers at the University of Milan worked with representatives of Facebook to conduct a study through the site on how many degrees of separation occur between two random people anywhere in the world. They found that the average number was 4.74 as opposed to the six it used to be.1
The figure of six degrees of separation was established back in 1967 by a scientist named Stanley Milgram, who was already famous for his experiments identifying the relationship between authority figures and obedience.2 His research had 296 participants. They all sent postcards to various acquaintances who were asked to forward it on to their acquaintances and so on until it reached one particular Massachusetts resident. The average number of contacts between the initial volunteer and the end recipient was six.
To give you an idea of the difference in the scope of the studies, the Facebook version came from the pool of 721 million users of the site. Over the course of one month, the researchers analyzed the links between people on Facebook using original algorithms to determine possible pathways between users. The average degree of separation between any two people was determined to be 4.74. And when the United States was considered alone, the connection dropped to 4.37.
Now, in America, more than half of the population 13 and over consists of Facebook users. But around the world, only a little more than one-tenth of all people are on Facebook. So the study isn't really about our overall connections getting closer, but more about how social networking can bring us in touch with certain groups of people and lessen the degree of separation. Nothing would have changed for those who do not opt to have a Facebook account.
And though we may have links with more people through social networking sites, enabling us to potentially connect with many people around the world we normally wouldn't have contact with and participate in social movements that we might not have even been aware of, we do not have any more meaningful relationships because of them. In fact, research from Cornell University in 2011 found that in 1985 the average number of close friends a person had was three; by 2010, that number was reduced to two. Small numbers, yes, but that's still a decline of one-third.3
We might have hundreds or even thousands of friends on Facebook, but when the Cornell study scientists asked participants to list the names of people with whom they had discussed "important matters" in the last six months, 48 percent provided just one name. Eighteen percent listed two names, and only 29 percent listed more than two. It seems as if we are pursuing quantity over quality these days and alienating ourselves in the process.
There is certainly nothing wrong with joining a social networking site. They can be great tools for getting in touch with old friends, promoting a business, catching up on some news and keeping up-to-date on a variety of acquaintances' lives. But it's important to remember to step away from the computer or the smart phone too in order to have real face time with those you care most about. Sharing a meal, talking a walk, or anything that gets you spending time in person (or even on the phone, but not texting) and opening up to meaningful conversation is vital to healthy relationships.
Because while it's incredible that a woman in Kansas might only be four or so degrees removed from a man in Bangladesh, chances are they will never meet or have much, if anything, in common. But each of them hopefully has friends and family that provide a great support network for them, celebrating the good moments and struggling through the bad together.
1 Markoff, John and Sengupta, Somini. "Separating You and Me? 4.74 Degrees." The New York Times. 21 November 2011. . Accessed 2 February 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/22/technology/between-you-and-me-4-74-degrees.html?_r=1>.
2 Milgram experiment. Wikipedia. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment>
3 Potter, Ned. "More Facebook Friends, Fewer Real Ones, Says Cornell Study." 8 November 2011. ABC News. 1 December 2011. < http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/facebook-friends-fewer-close-friends-cornell-sociologist/story?id=14896994#.Ttfpzla8GSp>.