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Six(ish) Degrees of Separation

This year, Facebook decided to celebrate its birthday as we all do: by hanging out with friends, enjoying some cake, and, of course, disproving a nearly century-old mathematical theory. As discussed in the New York Times article linked below, Facebook was able to show that Frigyes Karinthy’s famous “Six Degrees of Separation” theory was no longer accurate in today’s more interconnected world. The original theory claimed that any two strangers could be linked by five or fewer other individuals. However, Facebook did the math to prove that this number is actually much smaller. Rather than people being separated by six degrees, Facebook found the average number to be closer to 3.57, a significantly shorter chain of connections.

The results produced by Facebook’s research give some interesting insight into just how effective social media is at connecting individuals all around the world. When Karinthy formed her theory back in 1929, social media was nonexistent, and therefore people were limited in the ways in which they formed connections. Generally, they could only be formed through personal contact or family relationships. Ninety years later, this network of connections has been completely revolutionized by social platforms, such as Facebook, that make it much easier for people to connect with a greater number of other individuals. As a result of each person being connected to more people, through them each of their connections is exposed to a broader network of links and so on. This makes it much easier to connect any one stranger to another.

Although Facebook’s findings are certainly noteworthy, it is important to keep in mind that not every person in the world has access to this expanding social network. For example, their research was conducted only among the 1.59 billion users of Facebook, thus excluding the other 5.7 billion people on Earth who do not use the site. Perhaps if these people had also been taken into account, the degree of separation would have been found to be larger than 3.57. Regardless, Facebook certainly proved an impressive point about how successful they have been at more closely linking people across the globe. 


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