Back in the 1950s a scientist name Stanley Milgram did a study where he sent a picture of a stock broker in Boston to a bunch of people in midwest and asked them to send the picture to someone in their network who was most likely to know the person. After collecting all the packets at the Bankers address, Milgram calculated the average number of hops from the person in the middle of the country to the Boston Banker was 6.1 stops. This is where the term 6 degrees of separation came from.

The premise that each person is 6 degrees away from any other person. That was the premise of Milgrams argument.

I’ve had issues with it from when I first heard about the study. I would argue the number is MUCH, much smaller than six, both when Milgram ran his study and even more so now when we try to connect dots in the digital age. The reason: perceived vs actual degree.

Milgram’s study asked people to send it to a person who they thought would be closest. There was no way to know who is actually closest. You would have to comb the social network of your friends and your friends’ friends until you mapped out the actual closest path. For example, you think someone in CT might be closest to the Boston Banker. Connecticut is closer to Boston than another person in the midwest. What you might not know is that the Banker, while living in Boston, went to school in Pittsburg and the person down the street was his college roommate. YOu send it to a friend in CT, they send it to another friend and by the time you are done, you have hit more stops than the one down the street.

Tools like LinkedIn have partially solved this, by telling you when people are in your extended network, 2nd degree, 3rd degree. The problem is not everyone is on linked in. Not every interaction is joined there. You can’t rely on it.

How many degrees are you away from say, President Biden. Well, I actually don’t know if anyone I’ve ever shaken hands with has shaken hands with Biden, but I have a friend I know has shaken hands with Obama. So that means that I am at most 3 hops from shaking hands with Biden. I could be two, but I don’t know who would be the person. I have some candidates to reach out to, but again, not always sure of the best path.

What I’m getting is the notion of one’s perceived social network vs one’s actual network. You network is much more complex than you realize because as complex as your network is, your friends also have complex networks.

How do we use this information? That is the tricky part. If we could get everyone to register their friendship through a common network and share that information with friends then we could gather a better picture of your network. I don’t see this likely. So the benefit of this information is only knowing that we are more connected than we can possibly imagine. I don’t know about anyone else, but this does bring some small comfort.

There is another interesting concept for another post on types of connections, strengths and types of people in your social network graph. That is a post for another time.