“Six Degrees”

This is a post I wrote elsewhere in February 2008.

I recently read a book called Six Degrees: The New Science of Networks, by Duncan Watts. Whilst he might be describing his educational successes, the book is actually about networks: the name comes from the idea that everyone can be linked to anyone else in the world in just six steps – “six degrees of freedom”. (Watts actually demonstrates how this theory is actually very poor indeed – the idea stems from an experiment by controversial psychologist Stanley Milgram, and a very poor experiment it appears to have been.)

I found it a fascinating book, particularly since we are now all part of an online, connected world. It was full of lots of interesting stuff – true, not a great deal of it seems to have stuck in my brain, but it was interesting whilst I was reading it…

I was reminded by this when I joined a group on LinkedIn. A lot of you will know about LinkedIn, if only because a lot of you are connected to me on it; for those of you who aren’t familiar with it, it is a kind of Facebook for professionals: you can sign up, find people you know, link to them, and access their networks: the idea is that you can connect to people, and since apparently 60% of jobs are found through networks rather than by answering ads, you can find work opportunities. That is the idea, anyhow.

One of the things it shows you on when you look at the group members is their connectivity to you – the number of steps away people are. I found this very interesting.

I was connected via other people to 38 members of the list of 282; another couple I am already directly linked to, but they’re not the interesting ones. What was interesting was how I was connected to these 38 people: a total of 44 connections – several people had more than one way of linking to me. These 44 connections are through just eleven contacts; three of them pointed to just one person – the same person, who I know anyway, and two others also connect just to one person, too.

So thirty nine connections pass through just six people. The person who links most connects me to 16 people; he is a consultant who works in the Edinburgh, were I live and where the business school is situated, and I wasn’t surprised at all to see him top the list. (It did make me think I must get in touch with him – and that is the point of LinkedIn!)

The next highest number of connections – eight – came from someone I used to work with, who did the MBA course a year after me, so again, I wasn’t surprised that he came high up the list.

But the next highest was an old friend, who works in New York; she linked me to seven people, and they were very diverse group, spread around the world. Thinking about this, it did make sense: she works in mobile media for an international company, and she is bound to be well connected to the kind of people who sign up for things like LinkedIn; but it was also surprising to see her so strongly represented in this group of mostly recent MBA graduates who are mostly on a different continent.

Incidentally, the eleven people that connect me to people in the group have a total of 644 connections between them; my friend in New York has 45% of these, and the guy who provided most links to the group accounts for another 11%.

Milgram coined the phrase “small world phenomenon” for his observation (erroneous or not) that everyone is connected by six degrees of freedom; and this seemed to ring true with my personal, unscientific review of that group.

By the way, there is a group on Facebook trying to see if they can connect everybody – Six Degrees Of Separation – The Experiment (I think the link only works properly if you are logged in to Facebook). I didn’t really sound as if what they were proposing would either work or made any sense; I think it might be a scam to grab email addresses, and I refused to join. Which I think means it won’t work. Ha!

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