New research suggests that our social networks are a lot wider than we realize.
“3.57 degrees of Kevin Bacon” doesn’t have the same ring as “6 degrees,” but according to a recent report from Facebook, it might be more accurate.
The social network analyzed its 1.59 billion users and determined that each person is connected to every other person by an average of 3.57 degrees of separation. Translation: everyone in the Facebook-sphere is “friends of a friend of a friend of a friend (or so),” the Facebook data scientist Moira Burke tells CityLab.
“A person's degree of separation is based both on how many friends she has and how connected those friends are,” she adds. If you’re logged in, the site will generate your personal number; Burke tells CityLab that hers is 3.35. She was surprised by how low the degree of separation has become, but points out: “I have about 500 Facebook friends, and if each of my friends also had 500, that's a quarter of a million people I could be introduced to through a friend.”
Given that a 2011 joint analysis from researchers at Facebook, the Università degli Studi di Milano, and Cornell University placed the average degree of separation at 3.74, the new report is a testament to the fact that we’re more interconnected than it often feels when struggling to avoid eye contact with the person right in front of us on a crowded train.
But of course, there are caveats. The world’s population is 7.4 billion; only 21.5 percent use Facebook. And there’s the concern that those who do use it just end up feeling lonelier.
The isolation that researchers point to as a byproduct of Facebook use mirrors the phenomenon of urban loneliness: the feeling of being surrounded by people, yet simultaneously disconnected. Yet in recent years, that theory has been displaced by the idea that urban settings prompt us toward a natural cohesion. Jennifer Senior argues in New York Magazine that the “weak ties” formed in populous cities and the internet alike “simply make us feel better.” Why? “Being in the simple presence of a friendly person helps us reregulate our behavior if we’re feeling depressed in our isolation,” she writes. Burke says that in a place like New York, “you're probably only about two degrees away from most of the people you pass on the street.” Making the leap between your own circumstances and those of a fellow city dweller, the data suggest, is not such an outlandish idea.
In fact, neither would be starting a conversation with them. Chances are, you’ll have someone in common.