‘We are all so much together,’ said Albert Schweitzer, ‘but we are all dying of loneliness.’
Was the great humanitarian speaking prophetically of the digital communications age?
A new academic study purports to provide solid evidence that social networking platforms are shrinking the gaps between people and networks of people.
The study by the University of Milan challenges the widely accepted idea that in our globalized age, everyone is linked to everyone else by, on average, six degrees of separation.
In theory, a chain of ‘friend of a friend’ can be made, on average, to connect any two people on earth, in six steps or fewer.
The idea, which is the basis for a popular party game as well as a key component of recent network theory, is that it takes just six nodes of connection before we can link one individual directly with another, even if they live on opposite sides of the planet.
The Milan study has found that found that 99 percent of 721 million Facebook users are connected after just five degrees of separation.
Many of us are at least a little familiar with the party game, which usually features the actor Kevin Bacon. Bacon has worked across a wide variety of film genres, with a large number of actors, directors, writers and other film people. The goal of the game is to find a way to connect any individual involved in the Hollywood film industry with Bacon, in just six or less stages.
However, long before the introduction of either the game or the social networking phenomenon, the six degrees notion started with a series of academic studies by American social psychologist Stanley Milgram.
The relatively low-tech studies involved sending packages across America and tracking the number of social connections that played a part in getting each package from A to B.
Each participant was invited to either send the package direct to its intended final recipient – if they knew that person on a first-name basis – or, failing that, to send it to a relative or friend whom they thought might be more likely to know the person.
Each time a participant mailed the package on, they also sent a postcard to the study overseers, who were then able to track its movements.
On average, this exercise required six different stages, or five re-mailings.
Critics of the six degrees idea claim that it quickly breaks down when applied to communities in very remote areas, or within industries that are not heavily impacted by globalization.
Others say that Milgram’s experiments covered only the relatively closed system of American society and that one cannot draw any global conclusions from this.
Still others claim that the whole thing is little more than an urban myth.
However, it should be said that quite early advocates of the connectedness idea – whether they called it ‘six degrees’ or not – saw it applying particularly to an age in which people would be hyper-connected via electronic communications, such as radios and later, computers.
There’s little doubt that internet services like Facebook, Twitter and the business site LinkedIn have significantly boosted our potential to form connections with other like-minded individuals globally.
Of course, language still presents a problem, though that gulf seems to be getting closer to being bridged using new instant translation software on next generation mobile phones, for example.
Meanwhile, there are still huge areas where internet technology is embryonic at best, so the connectedness offered by the internet is something which is still finding its way to a truly global audience.
Yet, much of the world’s population has at its fingertips tools that allow instant links to people who are a world away.
The big question, however, and the one that exhaustive studies have yet to tackle, is just how deep and enduring are those links and whether they initiate meaningful long-term friendships and collaborations.
After all, to go back to Milgram’s experiments, it’s one thing to play an elaborate game of pass-the-parcel; it’s quite another to turn that exercise into something that pragmatically changes something or moves the human story forward.
It is widely believed that one of the greatest potential benefits of digital communications, especially in the age of Web 3.0 and the Cloud, is its capacity to open up collaborative alliances, which may allow us to solve previously intractable problems.
This has huge implications for the future of our increasingly globalized economy, as well as for possible advances in medicine, town-planning, sustainable technologies and global peace.
In some respects, social networking platforms present us with a unique opportunity to test this contention, over large geographical areas and across ethnic and language divides.
We already know that Twitter and Facebook played a role in the events of the Arab Spring, but to what degree is unknown. And of course the final outcomes of these uprisings are for the most part still being played out.
The ultimate test of social networking’s role in producing political change may be whether or not it can significantly help to keep societies free.
In terms of research, we know that NASA is using thousands of what it likes to call ‘Click Volunteers’ to map the surfaces of planets and the movement of stars through the night skies.
These people, operating mostly from their personal computers at home, are playing a small but important role in building NASA’s information base.
Meanwhile, user participation in design has long been a feature of online computer gaming. Games companies have long understood the importance of consumer participation in the construction of new game narratives and techniques.
In fact, it was the gaming fraternity that coined the term ‘Architecture of Participation’ to describe this ongoing, interactive design covenant between manufacturers and users.
Wikipedia brings the same idea to the acquisition of common knowledge. The Wiki represents ‘what I know’ – it is a piece of code that allows me to be not just consumer but co-author of a vast encyclopaedia.
Overall, the ongoing success of the internet’s many services will depend largely on how well they build on the early promise of collaboration, both between users and designers and between users and other users.
If the internet is to change the world in any lasting, positive way, it must continue to turn consumption into participation.
Despite the findings of the Milan study, the school is still very much out on the degree to which social networking connections will lead to anything more substantial than casual cyber-acquaintances.
As a contributor to the New York Times noted today, in the post-Facebook era we’re close, after a fashion, to people who don’t necessarily like us or have anything in common with us.
To put it another way, we may be more interlinked but time will tell whether we’re any friendlier.