The world just got smaller

Stanley Milgram’s seminal paper ‘The Small-World Problem’ (Psychology Today, 1967) tells the tale of the first social network study. Milgram had the brilliant idea to send packages to distant parts of America (Wichita, Kansas and Omaha Nebraska) with the instructions to try to move this pacakge to a target individual in Sharon, Massachusetts. The results were the basis for terminology that we are all familiar with today: “six degrees of separation,” “small-world,” etc.

Many attempts have been made to replicate the study with different conditions, some of which have been successful, and others which have not. All attempts to discern the small-world properties on the internet have failed, thanks to the exponential nature of social ties. “Send this email to one of your friends” is quickly translated into “send this email to all of your friends,” and suddenly millions of people are involved.

A research team at Columbia University is trying to create a controlled environment to test the small-world properties of online communities. Anyone interested in participating can sign up on their homepage:

http://smallworld.sociology.columbia.edu/

I talked for a long while with Duncan Watts (the creator of the project) at the Sunbelt conference, and he said that the attrition rate for individuals within the study so far has been vary high. For every email in a chain, there is only a 25% chance that the given person will forward the message on. I have yet to participate myself, but I would suspect that the content of the message being forwarded is questionable enough that people might be dissuaded. I told him that the weblog community are a bunch who are used to generating memes and making them spread. If you’ve got any advice, I’m sure they could use it.

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