The “Small World Experiment”: Yahoo and Facebook Help Research Six Degrees of Separation

We’re practically brothers; Facebook and Yahoo join forces to test the “six degree of separation” theory, and you can participate.

They are practically brothers; Facebook and Yahoo join forces to test the “six degree of separation” theory, and you can participate.

In 1929 a Hungarian writer, Frigyes Karinthy imagined that the world would one day become so small that every person on the planet would be six steps away from every other person on the planet. Decades later, Six degrees of Kevin Bacon was a trivia game, and in 2011, Yahoo and Facebook have joined together to test the six degrees of separation theory for the Small World Experiment.

According to the website: “The Small World Experiment is designed to test the hypothesis that anyone in the world can get a message to anyone else in just “six degrees of separation” by passing it from friend to friend. Sociologists have tried to prove (or disprove) this claim for decades, but it is still unresolved.  Now, using Facebook we finally have the technology to put the hypothesis to a proper scientific test. By participating in this experiment, you’ll not only get to see how you’re connected to people you might never otherwise encounter, you will also be helping to advance the science of social networks.”

The plan is to publish the study’s findings in a peer reviewed journal, and researchers are excited because this new approach to research could not have been done fifteen or twenty years ago. According to Cameron Marlow, Facebook’s chief data scientist, “Facebook depends on its connectedness… This is our best chance to measure this fundamental piece of the social graph, so the more users that participate, the clearer the signal will be.”

To join the experiment, you can become either a sender or a target. To become a sender go to the website; after you agree to the terms and services, you will be assigned a “target person”. The goal is to pass a message to the target person via your friends in as few steps as possible. The website explains: “you’ll be shown your assigned target. Then you’ll get to choose a friend to pass the message to. That person will then get the same instructions, and so on….”

If you want to become a target, you can volunteer for the position through the website; however, it does not necessarily mean you’ll be selected. Of course, becoming a target means you will have hundreds – potentially thousands – of people trying to get messages to you through their friends. So, if you’ve got all your privacy settings at their most secure, this may not be the position for you. Think the experiment won’t be interested in your participation as a targer because you’re an Average Joe? Think again. The website explains that “for the experiment to succeed, we need people to volunteer to be targets, ideally people who come from all parts of the globe, and who span a wide range of ages, occupations, income levels, and ethnicities.”

Whether you choose to participate in the study or not, definitely keep an eye on it; not only does it remind us how “connected” we all are, it is also the perfect use of social media.