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Business - Written by on Monday, July 30, 2007 11:27 - 6 Comments

Don Tapscott
How many degrees of separation are there now?

When I recently sat down for a dinner with Anthony Gold, who some people might know as the open source guru at Unisys, he posed these two very interesting questions:

Is it still six degrees of separation out there?

Is there still a need for “super connectors” to pull us all together?

As Anthony expanded on in his blog, the reason he asks these questions is a curiosity about how much more accessible everyone is in the age of the Web 2.0. After all, the six degrees of separation theory was based primarily on an experiment that involved how snail mail moved from Nebraska and Kansas to a stock broker in Massachusetts (participants were asked to send the letter to someone they knew on a first name basis that they thought would be more likely to know the broker than themselves) in the 1960s – things have changed a little since then.

For example, if you’re over 30 (which I am, even if you can’t tell from my Second Life avatar), think about how many people you were connected to in your mid to late teens. In all likelihood it was a relatively small group, most of the people probably lived pretty close to you, and over time you lost touch with many of them (particularly if you or they moved). After all, it takes a lot of work to maintain relationships with multitudes of people when phone and mail are your only options, and only a special few can (or bother) to do so – a.k.a. the “super connectors” made famous by Malcolm Gladwell.

Now contrast that with today, and how connections can be made, maintained, and in many cases rediscovered through Facebook, MySpace, various other community sites, and the like. There is no denying that we are becoming more connected, and it’s far easier to maintain these connections (even the ones you might want to be rid of…) – which takes us back to Anthony’s questions.

Exactly how small is the world getting, and in the world of social networking are super connectors waning in influence?

In turn, Anthony posted a few thoughts on how this issue could start being investigated, in addition to some of the challenges tied to it (particularly in defining what exactly a connection is). Does anyone have any other thoughts on how we might figure this out?


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Dwayne Phillips
Jul 31, 2007 9:06

I agree with the concept that the degrees of separation are shrinking. I first noticed this four years ago when my oldest child graduated high school and “went off to” college. He would come home and tell me about how the different universities that his far flung high school friends would handle hurricanes, snow storms, and other anomolies differently. How did he know? Easy, email.

Kids stay connected with high school friends much longer and deeper than I (age 48) ever did.

Malcolm Ryder
Aug 7, 2007 10:34

(This note is regarding the original posting, not other comments…) While I am a serious consumer and advocate of the current technologies at our disposal, I am borderline horrified by what appears (at least superficially) to be an aggressive mythologizing of the “community” of technology users. What is the myth that I refer to? The myth of the privileged “We” being “everyone”. “Everyone” really means, “everyone who matters.” In the history of politics, this formula is the core of the justifications for class, racism and The Like. Why is the exuberant denial of restricted technology access and unequal opportunity across society and culture so easily tolerated by otherwise serious thinkers who want to understand or evangelize the importance of internetworking? In the 21st century in the western world, this access and opportunity is the Money, and it is frightening to see the repetition of abuses that we are already so familiar with from history. That said, it seems only obvious that any special interest group, suddenly equipped with better tools, will first indulge and ramp up its own special interest — whether the interest be “being a teen”, “being a scientist”, “being a salesman”, or whatever. It’s what our northern/western culture is like, after all, whether characteristic of other cultures or not. What would be truly interesting to comment on is how increased power for special interest affects the predisposition to share (or not) the wealth with “the Others”…

Wilson Haddow
Aug 10, 2007 4:34

“Is the role of super connectors waning in influence?” – yes and no. The role of individuals as Super Connectors is waning but the role of social networks as Super Connectors is rapidly increasing. We no longer look to a person as providing the enabling pathway to a person/network etc. we now seek out the network that will be best positioned to assist. Therefore, maybe we need to refine the definition of a Super Connector.

So is the world getting smaller? – no. My rational is that the number of options has increased by orders of magnitude even though the ability to rapidly find and contact an individual has decreased. So now we have the issue of sorting through the multiple options and deciding when we have sufficient information to make a decision – this issue was minimal when we identified the original 6 degrees of separation.

Aug 10, 2007 10:24

Question – why/how has the “ability to rapidly find and contact an individual… decreased”? If anything, I would think it’s the opposite.

Malcolm – did you see the post/ article on Facebook vs. MySpace (difference in user bases)?

Wilson Haddow
Aug 11, 2007 5:34

Denis, my mistake I should have said “and the time to rapidly find…. has decreased”

Modern Marketplace « Go Ask Alice
Feb 26, 2008 22:20

[...] uncouth to shun the Internet, or get to point where it is impossible to subsist with out it? The Wikinomics blog recently posted about this very thing, mulling over the idea that the world is getting smaller and [...]

Now available in paperback!
Don Tapscott and Anthony D. William's latest collaboration, Macrowikinomics: New Solutions for a Connected Planet. Learn more.

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