Microsoft study proves six degrees of separation

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

According to data released by Microsoft, you really are connected by approximately six degrees with the average person on this planet, the Washington Post reported Saturday.

Eric Horvitz and Jure Leskovec set out to prove a popular theory, and they did, almost.

"What's the distance between you and any random person on the planet? That's the kind of result we were seeking," Microsoft researcher Eric Horvitz told ABC's Good Morning America.

"We've been able to put our finger on the social pulse of human connectivity — on a planetary scale — and we've confirmed that it's indeed a small world." Microsoft researcher Eric Horvitz told Agence France-Presse.

The Microsoft wordmark.

"Over the next few decades, new kinds of computing applications, from smart networks to automated translation systems, will help make the world even smaller, with closer social connections and deeper understanding among people."

Multiple press agencies are reporting that Microsoft's research on over 30 billion text messages from June 2006 averages to 6.6 degrees between any two people on Earth.

ABC News reports that the 30 billion messages were sent between 180 million people. This equates to roughly half of the instant messaging traffic during that month.

"To me, it was pretty shocking," Horvitz told The Washington Post. "What we're seeing suggests there may be a social connectivity constant for humanity. People have had this suspicion that we are really close. But we are showing on a very large scale that this idea goes beyond folklore."

According to the BBC, the concept of "six degrees of separation" or "Small world phenomenon" was the product of research done by American Stanley Milgram in 1967 when he mailed letters from himself to a Boston stock broker. Instead of mailing them direct, he instead sent 160 people in Kansas the letters, asking them to send them to someone who might know the person in Boston. It took an average of six mailings, thus six degrees of separation. Research done in 2006 reported a 95% failure rate in these tests.

The theory was popularized in the 1990s when college students would play a trivia game trying to link actor Kevin Bacon with any one other answer. The person to do so in the shortest number of links won.

In 2003 another similar experiment was undertaken, this time via e-mail. 24,163 volunteers tried to send a message to one of 18 people all over the world. The Post reports that only 384 of the 24,163 chains were connected. That equates to about 98.5% failure rate. An estimate was made at 5 to 7 degrees of separation.

"To our knowledge, this is the first time a planetary-scale social network has been available to validate the well-known 'six degrees of separation' finding by Travers and Milgram," the researchers said according to The Washington Post.

The research found that 78% per connected by 7 steps or less, but some were connected by as many as 29 degrees of separation, the Post said. The most common Microsoft Messenger user is in America, Europe or Asia.