THE SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION IS NOW THREE

Six degrees of separation has fallen to three due to the impact of social networking and developments in technology, according to a study carried out by O2.

O2 commissioned social organisational specialist Jeff Rodrigues to examine the impact of technology on how connected people are. The research included over 50 hours of in-depth interviews with adults across three different age groups, (18-25, 35-45, 55+) and found that the conventional notion of six degrees of separation is out of date.

The term was made famous by US psychologist Stanley Milgram following a 1967 experiment. The six degrees theory was upheld in a 2006 Microsoft study of instant messenger conversations. However, the O2 study reveals that within a shared ‘interest’ network (i.e. hobbies, sport, music, religion, sexuality etc), the average person is connected by just three degrees.

Rodrigues finds that we are usually part of three main networks based on family, friendship and work. Outside of these we are, on average, part of five main shared ‘interest’ networks based on a range of personal interests from hobbies, sport, music and the neighbourhood we live in, to religion, sexuality and politics. It is the growth of these shared interest networks and the influence of technology on them that has led to the reduction in the number of degrees of separation.

All respondents were asked to make contact with an unknown person from destinations selected at random from across the globe using only personal connections. By using their shared interest networks the participants were able, on average, to make the connection in three person-to-person links.

For example, one of the respondents Katrina, 27 from Brighton, is a classical musician and leads a jazz band. She was asked to make contact with a Japanese jazz singer, Natsuo Murakami, halfway across the world. She contacted her record producer in Berlin via an email. He called his opposite number in Tokyo who had a register of all jazz singers in the country. Therefore making the link from Katrina to Natsuo in three personal steps.

According to the study one of the key factors driving the reduction in the number of degrees has been the growth in the number and quality of connections we now have. Almost all (97 per cent) of the respondents stated they felt more connected to people and networks now than they did 5, 10 and 20 years ago.

Email and mobile phones were the technologies that had the most significant impact in facilitating the reduction of degrees from six to three. Of those participating in the study that were asked to make contact with an unknown person, the majority (98 per cent) chose to use either the internet or their mobile phone, across all age groups. Texting was also seen as a universally important technology whilst social networking sites such as Facebook were highly rated by the youngest age bracket but usage declined drastically the older in age was asked.

Jeff Rodrigues who led the research for O2 commented: “More than forty years after Stanley Milgram’s original experiment, the results of O2’s study suggests that the common colloquialism may be ready for an update from six to three. What the study has brought to light is that the way we now interact means it’s never been easier to make connections and build networks of contacts.’

Gav Thompson, Head of Brand Strategy at O2, commented: ‘By commissioning this research we wanted to explore the impact that new forms of communications technology have had on our sense of being connected. We have all experienced those moments when it feels like the world is getting smaller and what this study highlights is that we are now better connected than ever before and that technology has been instrumental in re-shaping the way we connect. As a business, O2 is all about helping our customers connect to the people and things that matter to them, enabling them to be in touch wherever they are in the world.’