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Four degrees of separation? Give me six any day

In the last few days there has been a good deal of chatterabout how social media and social networks have led us to the point of being only four degrees separated rather than the more familiar six degrees.Now, call me a cynic, but I challenge the idea that this is true to the original idea and, perhaps more importantly, has any value.I am, and think I will continue to be, a great advocate of the power and capability of social media and social networks in general, and constantly point to where these can create value to both individuals and organisations. Connectivity, reach, and discovery are key components in that mix and the ability of these technical platforms to give us mechanisms to transcend barriers of time, cost or geography are central to the proposition.Indeed one of the early social networks was called sixdegrees. Of course it has gone the way of a number of social networks, as will some of our current favourites disappear, but our desire to remain social will remain. So too will some of the key components that make these networks valuable, one of them is the notion of trust.  We are all familiar with the idea of personal recommendation. Its power is that if you know and trust the person who is making a recommendation to you then a portion of that trust is transferred to the subject of the recommendation. The greater the trust you have in the recommender the greater the value of the “trust tag” handed on to the recommendee (if there is such a word). And there is the rub. Much of that trust you invest in the recommender is based on your relationship with them. The deeper and more evolved the relationship the greater the potential for trust. The Dunbar Numbers would suggest that there is a limit to the number of people we can maintain a meaningful relationship with, and so a point at which that trust tag is eroded to the point of being of no value and so a connection beyond this point is little more than a telephone directory in that it establishes a mechanism to contact someone but adds no further intangible value.

My understanding of the six degrees concept, as first put forward by Karinthy, is that we could link, by a maximum of six steps, all people in the world, each step being made by way of an introduction of one acquaintance to another. To be fair I don’t actually think six degrees is possible anyway but it is a fun exercise. But, the key issue is this idea of it being an acquaintance. It’s a matter of definition perhaps, it’s not necessarily trusted friend but at least carries with it a notion that the connection goes beyond just a number listing.

And so we come to the nub of it and one of my hobby horses. Some of those advocating the idea of a reduction to four degrees are basing this on the idea that amongst the Facebook friends and likes, twitter followers and followees (if THAT word exists) and Linked-in connections we can bring about a four step process of linking humanity. But for me it is a false concept and not in keeping with the original idea because in many of these networks the connections are nothing more than listings with no added intangible value, and no trust, friendship, knowledge or acquaintance implied or existing. If we were to take the model suggested then we could have, long ago, made some pretty short jumps to most of the world by linking folks who appeared in the same phone book listings.

No, I don’t think four degrees of separation is a reality, nor do I accept six, but I think those two steps would make a big difference in terms of the value of the links we might make.

But that is just my view – what do you think?

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