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Degrees of Separation in the Modern Age

Many have heard of six degrees of separation, the idea that we are six “hops” or less from almost everyone in the world. We learned in class that in Milgram’s small world experiment, most letters found their target destination within six degrees of separation. But is that still relevant in the modern world, in which social media and the Internet connect us more tightly than ever before? A study by Facebook and the University of Milan in 2011 showed that on Facebook, 92% of users are connected by only five degrees of separation. The average distance between people had shrunk to 4.74 from 5.28 in 2008. It is likely that the average is significantly lower now as Facebook has only continued to grow.

However, the data should be taken with a grain of salt. One reason is that while the Internet facilitates connecting to people, many connections are superficial and may hold no meaning. People may add each other on Facebook without even knowing each other, let alone being friends. A decrease in average distance is expected with the Internet. Also, the study is restricted to Facebook users and does not paint the full picture, as there are significant populations of the world who do not use Facebook. For example, in China Facebook is banned, and people may simply choose to not get a Facebook.

Regardless, as we continue to learn about networks it is important to recognize the effect Facebook and other social media is having. When connections can be formed with a click of a button, members of the network in this world will continue to be pulled closer.



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September 2015