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For Facebook Users, It’s More Like 4 Degrees of Separation

• October 18, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(ILLUSTRATION: ARKA38/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research from Taiwan suggests Facebook has shrunk the distance between any two human beings.

Six degrees of separation? Please. In the Facebook era, the number of people between you and any other human being has dropped below four.

That’s the conclusion of a newly published study from Taiwan. Eman Yasser Daraghmi and Shyan-Ming Yuan of National Chiao Tung University report that “the average number of acquaintances separating two people, no matter who they are … is not six, but 3.9.”

You say you don’t know any “footwear engineers”? Well, a friend of a friend of yours probably does—and if not, one of his or her acquaintances almost certainly does.

What’s more, that 3.9 figure is for people in unusual and largely self-contained professions, such as a Chinese-to-Korean translator. The average degree of separation between Facebook members, they compute, is about 3.2.

The notion that everyone on Earth is connected to everyone else through a maximum of six acquaintances—that is, you know someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows President Obama, or a particular fisherman in Malaysia—was first proposed by psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s. While evidence for his thesis was thin, it quickly found its way into the popular culture, in part through a brilliant play by John Guare (which was later made into a movie starring Will Smith).

Daraghmi and Yuan figured that, with Facebook, Milgram’s number surely has shrunk. So using a tool developed to answer their research questions, they went to work.

While their computations are dauntingly complex for non-nerds, they avoided certain potential pitfalls, culling from their calculation fake or duplicate accounts and ignoring celebrities, whose popularity could skew the results. Altogether, their data base included data on nearly 950 million people.

As they note in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, they found “the average degree of separation ranges from 3 to 4, even when ignoring celebrities.” What’s more, “Even a person who works in one of the rarest professions can be found within 4 degrees of separation.”

You say you don’t know any “footwear engineers”? Well, a friend of a friend of yours probably does—and if not, one of his or her acquaintances almost certainly does.

“The world is even smaller than you thought,” Daraghmi and Yuan conclude. “Facebook shrunk the gap between us.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

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