Or, Watch Maggie geek out about Facebook and math at the same time
Yesterday, I woke up to find that The Social Times had an article called “The ‘Small World Experiment’: Yahoo and Facebook Help Research Six Degrees of Separation”. Then I listened to “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” – and it was the one where they interviewed Kevin Bacon. He talked all about the game and how originally he had thought it was people making fun of him, i.e. this guy has been in so many movies and he still sucks. Kevin Bacon’s personal insecurities aside, I took it as a sign that I should write a blog post about the Six Degrees research.
Anyway, the Social Times article explained that Yahoo and Facebook have teamed up to put the Six Degrees theory (the big one, not the Kevin Bacon one) to the test though a giant simulation on Facebook. The best part: we’re all welcome to join in. Oh, and it also gave some background info on the idea behind all this:
In 1929 a Hungarian writer, Frigyes Karinthy imagined that the world would one day become so small that every person on the planet would be six steps away from every other person on the planet. Decades later, Six degrees of Kevin Bacon was a trivia game, and in 2011, Yahoo and Facebook have joined together to test the six degrees of separation theory for the Small World Experiment.
Of course, I had to play. You can either sign up to be a sender (the person that first sends a message out) or a target (the person meant to receive the message). Senders get to play now, but targets get the gratification of actually seeing it work when the message reaches them. I signed up to do both.
And how does it work? They gave you the basic profile information on your target. Mine was a guy named John who was from Massachusetts, had been in the military, and was now a mechanic in northern Georgia. (I was sorely disappointed to get someone from America. When I saw Georgia in there, I perked up, thinking that it meant the country; only to have my hopes dashed when I realized it was the state.) After vainly searching in hopes that John and I were somehow connected through a group or something, I caved and realized that I was going to have to put blind faith in a friend to pick the right direction to go next. I picked a college friend named Megan. She lives in Georgia, works in the car racing business (mechanics like cars?), and is involved in Republican politics down there (maybe a connection to some military groups in the area?). Of course, I haven’t seen Megan since graduating college, so I sent her a “Hey dude, hope your life’s going well… Could you do me a favor?” type message.
So now I wait. Hopefully Megan will indulge my request; maybe she’s a fan on Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon herself.
As to being a target… I guess I’ll just wait and see if anything comes my way. So, far, nothing to report. But, I don’t think that I’m all that hard to find information about. (And here I’m going to brag about my big success of the week – MaggieCakes now has a PageRank of 2!)
So, if you’re remotely analytical, you’ve probably spotted the big error with this test. It’s only taking place over Facebook. This hampers the experiment in so many ways, the biggest one being that Facebook doesn’t include the world’s entire population, and its makeup is heavily skewed to certain segments of the population. Sure, it’s technically open to anyone, but really it’s open to anyone with a sufficient standard of living to have internet access, with the downtime to indulge in social networking, who can read, who reads a language that Facebook supports, etc, etc. Generally speaking, the people who aren’t on Facebook are probably much more difficult to connect with in general. (Not the people who choose not to join, but the people who are barred from entry by one of the factors that I listed aboce.) So, really this game is Six Degrees of (Kevin) Facebook.
According to Facebook’s stat’s page, Facebook has over 750 million members, who have an average of 130 friends each. a piece. Even if the game were only Five Degrees, it’d still be pretty easy with those stats. 1305 = 37,129,300,000 – way more than the number of people on the people on the planet, let alone on Facebook. With six degrees, you could make one of two missteps and still reach your target Facebook user. 1306 = 4,826,809,000,000.
Okay, so you’re probably thinking, “Yes Maggie, we get it, the horse is dead – this isn’t a real test of the Six Degrees theory.” But, I’m going to continue on, okay?
The other big issue is this: the people who sign up to play are more likely to be interested in ideas about connections and networking (and therefore be more connected and networked) than people who don’t play. It’s like testing running speeds of competitive athletes or reading levels of college graduates – it’s good information to have, but doesn’t tell you all that much about society as a whole. I’ve got way more friends than the average Facebook user, and I’m betting that Mystery Mechanic John does, too. After all, this is the kind of thing that you only hear about if you spend time reading about social network trends and network simulations. (Yes, I have awesome ways to spend me free time. If they made a reality TV show about me, it would have the worst ratings ever.)
All those criticisms aside, I’m still hoping to get a message from Mystery Mechanic John saying, “You found me!” And then we can be Facebook friends and the game will have gotten a little easier for the next people that play. Oh, and if you want to be one of those people, you can sign up here: http://smallworld.sandbox.yahoo.com/
Questions of the day: Do you believe the Six Degrees theory? Not just counting Facebook, but your whole life, how many connections do you think you have?
MaggieCakes is a blog about social media, marketing, culture, and what’s new on the internet written by me, Maggie O’Toole. Every day (okay, I try for every day) I comb blogs and news outlets for the news about internet culture and social media to bring them to you (with my commentary, of course) here on MaggieCakes. Find anything interesting in the worlds of culture or social media that you’d like to see a post on? Leave a comment or send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.