August 10, 2003

Six Million Degrees of Bull$&*t (choose one)

So I've already torn into the "proving" of the six degrees of separation. And then Clay Shirky drops this gem of a turd on the study.

The most important finding, though, was that while chains can be connected in a few hops, few are. Of over 60,000 volunteers, only 384 chains, around 3%, were actually connected.

Now Clay put it politely. I'm not going to. This means the study is a big steaming pile of horseshit. Its getting hyped as "proving" the six degrees theory when in fact it disproves it completely. Blows the fucking theory out the water with an RPG. Only 3% of the chains actually connected at all! That means we are completely disconnected from most people, not connected. Something has gone horribly wrong in the spreading of this story. Perhaps its the researcher trying to salvage their hypothesis from a study that proves them wrong, or maybe its the media hyping the wrong thing. Probably a bit of both.

Now in all fairness this study seems a bit flawed, I have a feeling it amplifies the distance between us somewhat. But 97% is a big number. The connections are not getting made. We are separated from most of the world by an infinite number of degrees. Out own larger social sphere is close knit. But outside that sphere there are vast oceans of separation, connected only tenuously by the few individuals that daringly cross cultural borders. Like it or not we still live in a world of disconnect and discrepancy. And my tollerance for those who sell us myths of connection to make us feel better about our concentration of power is getting dangerously thin.

Posted by William Blaze at August 10, 2003 05:28 PM | TrackBack

A very valid critism, but think of it this way:

This study only looks at the kinds of connection that people can deliberately make (i.e. they are trying to reach a specific someone by travelling only one route and starting by choosing one person they know to be the next link).

The lack of success shows that we - individuals - aren't very good at navigating social networks.

But some things move through social networks, taking advantage of all the connections that exist, whether the individuals involved know where they lead to or not.

Gossip, information, disease, memes, etc. all navigate social networks in a way that will tend to make them seem vastly more connected than the deliberate attempts of individuals. For these kinds of contaigon social networks can still be small worlds.

What d'ya reckon?

Posted by: Tom on August 12, 2003 04:33 AM

Yes indeed, the study does show how poor we are at navigating social networks, and from the looks of it its pretty limited in its ability to really measure our connections. If it could some how ping every one of our connections, have them ping all theirs, etc, etc it would without a doubt have a far greater success rate.

And yes there are certainly "small worlds" of hundreds of thousands of intricately connected people, trough which memes and what not will circulate. However its my hypothesis that rather then one "small world" connecting everyone on earth, their are many small worlds, with very loose and tenuous connections between those worlds. Some of these are obvious. Religions, cities, alumnus of various schools. Others are far less obvious and likely predicated on chaotic chance. Their might be someone down the street whose network never crosses yours. And one chance encounter at the checkout counter could tie those two networks intimately together...

Bottom line, this is interesting and unchartered stuff, I look forward to learning more.

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