Saturday, August 2, 2008

6.6 Degrees

Small world? Apparently so. A study by two Microsoft researchers of 30 billion electronic conversations among 180 million people around the world suggests that socially, each person on the planet really is, at most, about 6.6 people away from knowing actor Kevin Bacon (left)—or any other stranger on Earth.

The study—which reviewed one month's worth of Microsoft Messenger instant messaging traffic—was presented to the World Wide Web 2008 Conference in Beijing in April and reported today in The Washington Post. The findings appear to corroborate the popular "Kevin Bacon" theory of social networking that puts you just one degree away from everyone you know, two degrees away from everybody they know, and so on. At best, this six degrees of separation, or small-world theory, says that any two people—on average—could be linked by roughly seven or fewer acquaintances.

So why does this Microsoft study matter? Researchers say the findings underscore the real-world power and potential of social networks and social media to organize groups of people in order to raise money, spread ideas, and influence the way others spend their time. Until now, the "six degrees" theory was only a hunch. Now, researcher Eric Horvitz told the Post, "it's pretty shocking. What we're seeing suggests there may be a social connectivity constant for humanity...People have had this suspicion that we are really close. But we are showing on a very large scale that this idea goes beyond folklore."

Illustration of six degrees of separation concept
(Source: Wikipedia/Map of Six Degrees Theory of Social Connectivity)

Kevin Bacon—the well-connected actor for whom a 1994 college game about the phenomenon was named—has been applying the small-world theory to fundraising. Last year, Bacon launched, which maps his own social network and invites others to join it to raise money for social causes. In a Spring 2007 conversation, Bacon told me he initially thought the three college students who created Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon were poking fun at him:

"I thought at first that they were making fun, asking why a loser like me could know so many people, right? (laughter) Then I met these guys and saw it was for real," Bacon said. "Now, of course, this concept (of six degrees) is in the zeitgeist: the movie, Babel, was all about human connectivity. The potential here is that one person can reach out to two people and have those two people reach out to two more, and so on, and see the power of change grow exponentially around somebody's hope of having an impact. "

Bacon's site—developed with social entrepreneur Bill Strathmann, the CEO of Network for Good and co-author of People to People Fundraising: Social Networking and Web 2.0 for Charities—has raised some $4 million for a variety of social causes.

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