Wednesday, October 22, 2008

6° of Daniel P.

About a year ago I was bamboozled by The Hippie into signing up for a Facebook account. Being a misanthrope, of course I thought that it would be a total waste of time and energy since I couldn’t give a cold turd about what everyone in the U.S. is doing right now. But I begrudgingly obliged the wily layabout and created an account anyway. As it turns out, I was right. Facebook is a total waste of time and energy, but what I’m finding out is that’s mostly the point. Isn’t it? In addition to being an excellent diversion from work, I have been able to contact some of the old loads that I haven’t talked to in millennia and catch up on what everyone has been up to. It really is a great social networking tool and a brilliant way to find friends that have become sticks in the wind. Facebook is one of the most trafficked social media sites on the web and the fifth most visited site overall (behind Google, Yahoo!, MySpace and YouTube). With over 100 million current users the potential for scientific social data mining is immense. So I thought to myself, “What’s the best way to use all of this information?” After seconds of excruciating deliberation, I came up with it. Of course! Why not use the data to prove the concept behind the idea that everyone on the planet is only separated by six social connections. That seems like a silly enough venture for this week. What do you think?

I’m sure you’ve heard about the theory of six degrees of separation before, but let’s just do a bit of an intro. The basic premise of the idea is that there are just six degrees of separation between any two strangers on Earth. This means that I am connected to Indira Ghandi, Nanook of the North, or Pol Pot by six or fewer social connections. I don’t think Pol Pot checks his Facebook account very often, though. This idea was originally presented by a Hungarian wacko named Frigyes Karinthy in the late nineteen twenties. Karinthy believed that the modern world was shrinking due to the increasing connectedness of human beings. He suggested that despite great physical distances between people in the world, the growing density of human networks made the actual social distance smaller. Pretty forward thinking considering there were only ~1.5 billion people around, and there was almost no intercontinental communication. He wrote a series of short stories titled “Everything is Different” in which Karinthy's characters believed that any two individuals could be connected through at most five acquaintances. This became what we know as the hypothesis of six degrees of separation.

I happen to believe whole-heartedly in the theory. It’s one of the theories that form the foundation to Daniel P. Daniel’s reasons why you should never cheat on your significant other. Allow me to explain. Say you’re on a solo fly fishing trip in the Amazon Basin trying to snag Pirarucu using a wooly booger, and you come across a hot native woman with a stick through her nose who has a thing for bald Americans with rugged good looks…hey it’s my story…You think, “Who’s gonna know?” Right? Wrong. Two weeks later an anthropologist from the University of Chicago shows up to study native stick piercings. When he gets back to the states, he goes to his barber and tells him a story. That barber is originally from Kansas and still has family there. He tells the story to his brother who has a friend that works at a grocery store in Colorado. While shopping at the Vitamin Cottage the wife overhears a story about a tall, mysteriously good looking…again my story…American fish warrior that conquered an Amazon village of scantily-clad stick-pierced women. Six degrees of separation - loop closed. Now the jig is up, and she knows why she has a venereal disease that has never been documented in the developed world. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

You may be more familiar with the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game where the goal is to connect actors through films that contain Kevin Bacon. For example: William Shatner was in Dodgeball with Julie Gonzalo who was in Saving Angelo with…Kevin Bacon. In fact, I can be connected to KB in only two steps. I have met Michael Jordan a couple of times, and he was in a Hanes commercial with KB. We’re practically related. The mathematics behind these social networks is pretty complicated, but they can be explained somewhat simply. Imagine that you know 100 people…real people, Sybil. Each of those people knows 100 others. By the time you reach out to six steps you end up with something like 100^5 or 10 billion people. As I said this is a gross simplification, but it’s easy to see how this might work in principle.

Back to the original Facebook idea. I did a little poking around, and it turns out that some jaggoff beat me to the punch. There is a Facebook application called Six Degrees that calculates the degrees of separation between different people. It has about 4.5 million users. The average separation for all users of the application is 5.73 degrees, and the maximum degree of separation is 12. The application has a "Search for Connections" window to input any name of a Facebook user, to which it then shows the chain of connections. I hate it when people steal my ideas before I have them. It’s pretty cool, though, that the numbers pretty much support the six degrees hypothesis which was put forth by some weird-ass writer 80 years ago.

There have been many other studies that seem to support the theory. The latest (and largest) is a study done by Microsoft. They gathered the information from all of the conversations held via Microsoft Messenger in June of 2006. Seems a little creepy, right? Personally, the number of instant messages that I have ever sent is equal to the number of wives the Pope has had, so I’m not too worried about it. They collected records of 30 billion electronic conversations among 180 million people from around the world…that’s right, 30 billion messages…in a month…That’s a billion a day, or 11,500 messages per second, 24/7. What the @#&#@, people! Give it a rest, will ya? Now where was I? Oh, yeah. Their researchers have concluded that any two people on average are distanced by just 6.6 degrees of separation, meaning that they could be linked by a string of seven or fewer acquaintances. Even though the sample size is huge, there remains some question in my mind weather or not the dorks that use IM all of the time are as socially connected as the rest of the world. Either way, I’m not ready to start calling it the seven degrees of separation just yet.

Turns out it really is a small world after all, but I still wouldn’t want to paint it…

Check out: for some more nonsense.


TJ said...

I can't believe someone stole your idea. Weak.

I'm still reticent to jump into the whole facebook thing. I've had a few people send me facebook invites, including one frome some really pretty blonde (who I don't know) the other day, but I have so much other stuff to keep up with, I'm not sure if it would be worth it. I guess it's passed myspace by though. *sigh* What's a lazy man to do?

Dan said...

Just remember, TJ, laziness that is well carried out is called efficiency.