Six Degrees of Separation

I read an interesting article in the Star Ledger today about “six degrees of separation,” that well-known conjecture about how many people in a chain of personal acquaintances it takes to get from you to any other person in the world. The source of this conjecture is a 1967 experiment by Stanley Milgram in which he asked people to send a package to a stranger by sending it to someone who might know them and then having them forward it to another likely person, and so on. This experiment spawned the parlor game “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” in which you try to link him to any other actor using movies they co-starred in.

The new wrinkle is the use of cyber space to link people via email. The new findings ostensibly verify the earlier findings in that, when messages got through, they got there in 5-7 steps. However, when you read deeper into the article, you find that, of 24,163 email chains attempted, only 384 (about 1.5%) reached their intended target. This hardly supports the conclusion that “we’re all connected” by a few mutual friends.

Anyway, the current researcher is recruiting volunteers for another experiment.

My question is, should we cooperate with this endeavor? Should anyone? On the surface, it seems kind of fun. You participate in “real” research and possibly meet new friends. On the other hand, this in government funded, and we know what the government does with information. The goal of this work is to “better understand information flow, promoting the things we want (information, ideas, etc.) and preventing the things we don’t (computer virus’s, etc.) Given recent news of the attempt by the Department of Defense to create a “futures market” for world terror, I’m not so sure I want to help anyone understand information flow on the internet any better. I have often felt we should not only not cooperate with sociological/psychological studies, but also sabotage them, to preserve person freedom and inscrutability. What do you think?

DadConnections08/08/03 3 comments


David • 08/15/03 6:43 PM:

i can’t write for long - but there’s a scientific american article on this. perhaps that’s what dad linked to, i don’t know. i’m still in costa rica and internet time is money. cool info, Dad.

AJ • 10/27/03 6:12 PM:

Chain mails have “intended targets?” Well, I guess you learn something new everyday. I thought chain letters were almost annoying enough to go under Pat’s “social contract” topic. Aren’t chain letters a product of people enjoying the fact that they can make people do things they don’t really want to do or tell them a story they don’t want to hear and waste their time.

Does anyone send these things by snail mail anymore? If so, maybe my earlier arguments are wrong, but I haven’t seen a chain letter since I was like 7.

Dad • 10/27/03 9:52 PM:

AJ, you misunderstand, inasmuch as I can remember an entry written almost two months ago. Most “chain mails” have no intended target, other than the “friends” you send them to. My posting refers to a guy who is running an experiment to determine how closely linked we all are by personal friendships, or acquaintances. I guess the Star Ledger article has lapsed, but the website (click on experiment) is still up. His idea is to pick some obscure person somewhere in the world and then see if this person can be linked to anybody else in the world through six personal contacts, or “degrees of separation.” My question is whether or not we should cooperate with this type of research at all, since it is probably going to bite us back later in terms of more efficient spamming.

Yes, chain mailing, electronic or otherwise, is annoying and presents ethical questions that most people (present company excepted) ignore. As for snail mail, I have seen or gotten hard copy chain letters as recently as a couple years ago. The one I remember is the famous Nigerian one where they’re trying to send millions of dollars out of the country, but need legitimate people to send it to. You give them a few thousand up front in the hope that they send you millions, of which you get to keep a substantial percentage. Of course, this one also comes on the internet. Given you can send millions of emails for free versus buying millions of stamps, I think the internet has probably wiped out the hard copy approach.

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