Like many other folks, I've always been quite taken with Six Degrees of Separation, the idea that you are no more than six personal connections removed from any other person in the world.
I have long prized connections like my hair stylist, who went to high school with Larry Birkhead (father of Anna Nicole Smith's child) and my husband's friend, who was once the press secretary for Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), for their abilities to quickly link me to the worlds of big-time celebrity and politics.
As this Wikipedia entry notes, Six Degrees long ago moved from the academic world where it originated to become a pop culture phenomenon. The idea has inspired a play, a film, lots of TV shows, spinoff games like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and Six Degrees of Dave Grohl, and its own Facebook application.
So imagine how thrilled I was to see not one, but two, articles about studies that attempted to find out if technological advances have brought folks closer than Six Degrees. One found that it actually took slightly more than six steps to connect folks, while the other found that connections are now made in fewer steps.
According to BBC News, Microsoft researchers looking at Microsoft Messenger traffic from June 2006 found that it took an average of 6.6 steps to connect IM users to other users in the network. Seventy-eight percent of the pairs examined by the researchers could be connected in fewer than seven steps, though some took as many as 29 steps.
TechCrunch's Don Reisinger cites research sponsored by French mobile carrier O2 showing that participants could connect to strangers in just three steps. Older respondents named mobile phones and e-mail as their top methods of connecting with others, while younger folks mentioned Facebook.
Neither of these appear to be exhaustive, carefully vetted studies. But, as it turns out, neither was the original research that yielded the Six Degrees concept in the first place.
This 2003 NewScientist.com article mentions a study in which 60,000 people from 166 countries tried to connect with strangers via e-mail. It took most of them between five and seven messages to do so. Duncan Watts, one of the researchers who conducted the study, said he didn't "see e-mail as being a particularly compelling medium for generating social ties." (Unless maybe, I'd add, you want to meet "a Russian girl wanting to please you!")
Only 6 percent of the relationships in Watts' study were based entirely on the Internet, leading him to conclude that offline ties with friends, family members and co-workers were stronger than those based on Internet connections. Is that still true today? Probably.
Yet Facebook and other social networks, though they are based on the idea of connecting to people through common friends, also give people the ability to bond with random strangers over nothing more than a shared interest. You don't need a personal connection three steps or six steps down the line.
Sure, you could always achieve the same effect by flashing a button or bumpersticker proclaming your love for a particular political candidate or the Velvet Underground or "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." But the Internet has made it unbelievably quick and easy to do so. And for that, we should be mostly grateful.