Social Mobilization: Fewer Than Six Degrees of Separation

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Six degrees of separationCollaboration depends on people being able to be in contact and work together to solve a problem. We are becoming, if not more collaborative yet, at least closer together.

Compare these two facts: In 1967, an American social scientist, Stanley Milgram, sent dozens of packages to people picked from the Omaha, Nebraska, phone book. The packages contained a letter with a simple request. Pass the packages along to acquaintances who would then pass them on to people they knew so the packages would get closer to their intended final recipients.

The result became legend. Milgram discovered that, on average, there were six degrees of separation between any two people. In other words, the first recipients of the package sent it to someone they thought might know the final recipient, and so on, and it only took, on average, six people from the first recipient to the last.

Now jump forward into the digital age. In 2011, Facebook, with 721 million users, analyzed the connections between people who know one another and found that it only took an average of 4.7 jumps to link any two people through mutual friends.

That’s pretty amazing. If Stanley Milgram were to send a virtual package using Facebook, not only would it get to the intended final recipient sooner, it would also be dramatically faster, especially since there is no record of how long it took for his experiment to find that original six degrees of separation.

So, we are now closer together as neighbors, even if we do not directly know everyone in the neighborhood, and it takes considerably less time to get together to collaborate. And this has created a brand-new field of study, one that is close to my heart, called social mobilization. Researchers in this new field are looking into what may be one of the most important areas of study in our time.

Personal flashback. In the year 1999, I was standing at the end of a pier in Provincetown, Massachusetts, looking at the sunrise over the Atlantic with a friend of mine. I was a young researcher at Digital Equipment Corporation and had been working on DECnet, the world’s first corporate Internet. I remember turning to my friend and describing my work, and telling him that we were entering a new and amazing age where we were creating a “world brain,” in which everyone would be connected and be able to work together.

Okay, back to 2012. Social mobilization researchers are finally asking the right questions. According to a recent article in The Economist, “Six degrees of mobilisation,” they are trying to decide what potential value to society the shrinking degrees of separation represents. The article asks, “Can this be used to solve real-world problems, by taking advantage of the talents and connections of one’s friends, and their friends?”

By looking at the world — you and I — as a “distributed knowledge resource which can be tapped using modern technology,” the door opens up to endless possibilities for collaboration. As the article says, “It could potentially be used to help locate missing children, find a stolen car or track down a suspect.” And that’s only for starters.

There have been a number of interesting — and fun — early experiments by researchers in this exciting field of social mobilization, and they are detailed in The Economist article. For me, the most exciting idea is the ease with which we can now collaborate. No more packages and letters and waiting for the mail to arrive. We are looking at a brave new world of collaborating, one in which smartphones will have social mobilization apps that will connect the people with questions to people who can, within a few degrees of separation, connect them to the people with the answers.

Just as I told my friend as we watched the sunrise on a new day, the Internet is like a brain for the whole Earth, and now it can speak and listen, ask and answer.

Source: “Six degrees of mobilisation,” The Economist, 09/01/12