Six Degrees of Separation: It’s a Small World

This topic was brought to my attention as I sat in a cafe in Seoul, South Korea, completely engrossed in a conversation with someone I had just met.

He explained to me how the world was growing yet getting “smaller” at the same time, citing examples of meeting various celebrities in his travels just by asking a friend if he or she knew them.  That friend knew a friend, who knew a friend,… until BOOM, he was sitting next to this famous singer, or that beauty pageant winner.

To prove the point, he said, “If I asked you right now if you knew the singer Psy, you could probably find someone who did by asking five or six people.”

…to which I laughed and said, “Or even fewer! My cousin is his manager.” (Scary how small the world is, huh?)

We sat there laughing for a while at how ridiculous the situation is. “There’s a name for it, a theory or something,” he said, but we both couldn’t remember what it was.

I woke up today, almost two months after that conversation, and I thought of the term: Six Degrees of Separation.

Six Degrees of Separation: the theory that everyone and everything is six or fewer “degrees”, or steps, away from each other.


You might be familiar with Stanley Milgram, social psychologist best known for his experiments on obedience at Yale (which involved delivering electric shocks in a so-called “memory test” with increasing intensities).

In 1967, Milgram coined the phrase “six degrees of separation” after his small-world experiment, describing that growing social networks had a world-shrinking effect.

His small experiment tested this theory by seeing how many “steps” it took for a package to be delivered from the West coast in the U.S. to a stockbroker in Boston.

One acquaintance would mail it to another, and the results? The only took an average of six steps to reach Boston– in the 1960’s!

But what about now, in the 21st century, where social networking sites dominate the internet?

If you use LinkedIn or Facebook, you’ve seen the Six Degrees of Separation at work.

LinkedIn uses a “connections” system, where individual profiles in the “People You May Know” section are labeled as 2nd or 3rd connections, with a map showing how that person is related to you through your 1st connections (acquaintances already on your friend list).

Similarly, Facebook shows a “mutual friends” count, and now has a function that enables messaging to friends of friends, if enough shared contacts exist.

Which brings me to the next fascinating study.. as social networking increases, are the number of “degrees” decreasing?

It used to be that we were all just six degrees of separation apart, ‘connecting’ anyone to anyone else via finding a friend who knew someone else, who knew someone else, and so on.

But research conducted by Facebook and the University of Milan (Università degli Studi di Milano) in 2011 shows that the number of degrees is now as small as four.

721 million active users and 69 billion friendships were analyzed for one month, and the results were as follows:

  • 99.6% of all pairs of users are connected by paths with 5 degrees (6 hops)
  • 92% are connected by only four degrees (5 hops).

“When considering even the most distant Facebook user in the Siberian tundra or the Peruvian rainforest, a friend of your friend probably knows a friend of their friend.”

The average distance between all people on Facebook in 2008 was 5.28 degrees, while in 2011 it is 4.74.

Who knows what the number would be three more years later, today in 2014?

It’s a small, small world. (Maybe too small.)

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