Six degrees of separation

"Six degrees of separation refers to the idea that, if a person is one step away from each person they know and two steps away from each person who is known by one of the people they know, then everyone is an average of six steps away from each person on Earth." (Six degrees of separation, English Wikipedia)

This concept is one of the fundamental principles on which are based most digital social networks as LinkedIn or Facebook, for example. The statement itself is mostly true, even if the exact number of steps between people differs depending on the population measured and the types of links used. In any case, it is generally found to be relatively small according to several researches and experiments. But what does it really mean? Which is the difference between having a connection of sort with someone and having real access to that person?

We all have friends, or at least acquaintances. Some of them might know some important people, which in their turn may know some very important people. But does it mean that we have really access to those VIP's? Probably yes, we have if we really need to, and if we are very motivated and resolute, especially if we are introduced by someone who feel indebted towards us. However, the more important is the individual we are trying to contact, the greater is the favor we are asking for, and therefore the obligation we will have to repay.

Let me make a practical example. Just consider my real network, that is, not one of the several social networks I joined, but my real life network: people whom I personally know, who personally know my second degree ring, that in their turn personally know my third degree ring, and so forth.

I really know a person who personally knows very well the Pope. I will not tell you the name, of course. Anyway, Joseph Ratzinger, Papa Benedetto XVI, is two steps away from me. Since the Pope knows very well the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso is three steps away from me. Isn't it bad, is it? Does it mean that, in case I would need tomorrow to meet Joseph Ratzinger or Tenzin Gyatso, it will be easier for me to obtain a date with respect any other person in the world? I think not, unless I would have a very good and serious reason; but in such a case my opinion is that any person might obtain the same result by simply writing a letter directly to them. Of course, if the reason is really a grave one.

Another example, always related to my own network. I personally know a person who personally knows the current Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, as well as a person who personally knows the former leader of opposition, Walter Veltroni and the current one, Pier Luigi Bersani. So they are all two steps away from me. On the other hand, Berlusconi personally knows very well both George Walker Bush, the former President of United States of America, and Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the current Prime Minister of Russia as well as chairman of United Russia and Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Union of Russia and Belarus. So they are both three steps away from me. However, Bush family had business connections with bin Laden family, so it is very probable that some member of bin Laden family is four steps from me, and therefore that Osama bin Laden himself is probably five steps away from me only! So I do not even need six steps to reach Osama bin Laden, the founder of the jihadist organization Al-Qaeda!

Of course it is also possible that someone that I know be in contact with an immigrant from Iraq or Egypt who is really a terrorist of Al-Qaeda, so that Osama bin Laden might be closer to me in my network that I could imagine. Anyway, let us focus only on people we know very well and their own personal networks. According to the analysis I performed, I would be potentially connected to some of the most important and influencing people of the world within three steps only. Not a bad result, but absolutely useless to me. The point is that we should not only count links, but give a weight to each of them. The more important is the person we are linked to, the higher is the weight of the link itself; the higher is the weight of link, the more difficult it will be to have access to that individual, unless we have a very strong relationship with such a person, of course. So, the difficulty to walk through a connection is balanced by the trusting we have with the person on the other side of it.

Those considerations give a different perspective to social networks and to the six degrees of separation concept. Just representing a social network as a web of nodes and links, it is not only important how far away is an individual in order to estimate how difficult might be to have access to that specific node. We have also to take in consideration other two important parameters: the connection weights and the trusting with respect that node. Each node, in fact, has a different rating depending on the "first step" node it is linked to. The higher is the rating, the easier is to cross the link, even if the connection weight is high.

This perspective is fundamental to better understand digital social networks too. In fact, higher is your reputation in a social network, easier will be for you to increase your network, but harder will be for others to access you. Even if you are willing to easily accept requests of friendship from unknown people, in fact, you will be probably available to accept demanding requests only from a small set of friends, unless the requester has been introduced by someone you really trust.

So, if you have just joined a new social network, your strategy to develop a valuable personal web of connections should be the following:

  • first increase your first and second rings by selecting people with a good reputation, but avoid to try to go directly to the higher ratings: you will be given a refusal and miss an opportunity that you could take later;
  • increase your reputation in network: how, it will depend on network, of course — helping people is a good approach, anyway;
  • carefully select request to connect to you, avoiding people with very low reputation, unless their rating is low because they are new, but do not refuse a request just because the person is not important, since you cannot know whom that person may know in real life.

Social networks can be a valuable tool to improve your ability to make business, to increase your experience, to develop opportunities in any area, both personal and professional, and of course to meet interesting people. A strong network is always a valuable resource, but do not rely only on the number of links: stake on quality.


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