Facebook And Yahoo Test Theory Of 6 Degrees Of Seperation

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08/18/2011 01:27 PM ET

Facebook and Yahoo will be teaming up to test the six degrees of separation theory. Most people know of the urban game six degrees of Kevin Bacon in which people try to connect a certain actor or actress to Bacon with in 6 names. Actually, though there was a social experiment in the 1960's to see if there was six degrees of separation of most people on the planet.

Now Facebook and Yahoo will revisit that theory after the planets population has nearly doubled since the 60s. Stanley Milgram, the social psychologist who conducted the experiment back in the 60's tried to give people a new way to visualize their interconnectedness with the rest of humanity. Starting this week, social scientists from Facebook and Yahoo are hooking into their vast digital network to discover how many average online connections it takes for people to relay a message to a "target" - someone they don't know, in countries around the world.

"You really couldn't have done this until very recently," said Duncan Watts, Yahoo's principal research scientist who is leading the experiment. "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."

Several studies, such as Milgram's small world experiment, have been conducted to empirically measure this connectedness. The phrase "six degrees of separation" is often used as a synonym for the idea of the "small world" phenomenon. However, detractors argue that Milgram's experiment did not demonstrate such a link, and the "six degrees" claim has been decried as an "academic urban myth".

In 2001, Duncan Watts, a professor at Columbia University, attempted to recreate Milgram's experiment on the Internet, using an e-mail message as the "package" that needed to be delivered, with 48,000 senders and 19 targets (in 157 countries). Watts found that the average number of intermediaries was around six. A 2007 study by Jure Leskovec and Eric Horvitz examined a data set of instant messages composed of 30 billion conversations among 240 million people. They found the average path length among Microsoft Messenger users to be 6.6, some now call the theory, "the seven degrees of separation" because of this.

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