In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram started the “Small World” experiment to find out just how closely people were connected around the world. Milgram developed a theory that everyone on earth was separated by no more than 6 connections. Yahoo and Facebook just launched an experiment that will seek to prove Milgram’s theory.
But are social utilities like Facebook bringing the world closer together?
Researchers from Yahoo and Facebook will try to find out how many people it takes to relay a message to its target. Volunteers will send the message to a friend that they believe has the best chance of getting the message to the target. You can become a “Sender” here.
“The purpose of this study is to test a long-standing theory in sociology that everyone on Earth is connected together in a giant social network. In this experiment, participants called “Senders” forward messages to their Facebook friends in an attempt to reach a given “Target” individual, about whom they are given certain identifying information, in the shortest number of steps possible.”
Facebook has more than 750 million members and each one of those members has an average of 130 friends.
Duncan Watts, Yahoo’s principal research scientist, told Mercury News:
“You really couldn’t have done this until very recently. It’s a milestone, in terms of it’s the kind of research question you can answer now that you could have imagined 50 years ago but that you couldn’t have answered 50 years ago — or even 15 years ago.”
Watts, who used email to conduct a small world experiment five years ago, will now have access to around 8% of the global population through Facebook.
“It’s not 6 billion, but it’s twice the size of the U.S. population. If it works on this network, (the six degrees hypothesis) really is true,” Watts said. “I don’t think anyone can say, ‘Oh it works on Facebook, but it really doesn’t count.’ This is an opportunity to show that it’s true or not true.”