As the NYT reported, scientists at Facebook and the University of Milan (report posted here) have found that the average number of links connecting one arbitrarily selected person to another was 4.74 (in the U.S., it was just 4.37). So what's news?
It might seem that Facebook is better at connecting people. After all, when Stanley Milgram conducted the first such network study in 1967, it took the now-famous “six degrees” to connect two people. Facebook claims to cut a whopping 1.26 people out of the process.* That elusive soulmate, angel investor, or publisher of your first novel just got a little closer.
But is it a fair comparison?
Milgram asked volunteers to send a message by a single postcard, using their best guess of connections, to a specific person in a Boston suburb. This new study is omniscient, meaning researchers found the shortest route between two people—without relying on individuals involved to guess (or even to opt into playing the game).
This is the difference between my knowing that someone in my building could fix my problem with google calendar invites on my iPhone, and which someone to bring coffee to tomorrow morning.
Interestingly, on the omniscient side, we already have the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, in which participants try to come up with the shortest connection between any movies star and Kevin Bacon. This game spawned the Oracle of Bacon website, which uses the IMDB movie database to tell us that the 2.1 million inhabitants of the movie business are actually connected by an average of only 2.980.
If you're thinking of breaking into the movies, in other words, you're better off friending the real Kevin Bacon.
* In fact, in an interesting accounting practice, the Facebook study rounds 4.74 degrees to 4 degrees of separation, while rounding up Milgram's original 5.2 degrees to 6. Hmm.