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Twitter shortens the six degrees of separation to five

The theory of “six degrees of separation” as envisioned by Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy in 1929, has now been narrowed to five degrees on Twitter, according to social media research company Sysomos.

The original premise of Karinthy’s theory is that technological advances in communications and travel would allow friendship networks to grow larger and span greater distances. This would in turn mean that every person on earth is connected to everyone else via six steps, or in other words six people.

Sysomos provides some context: “During the early 1960s, Stanley Milgram, a psychologist, set out to do a series of experiments to estimate the distance between individuals in a social network, and essentially test the theory of six degrees of separation. His experiments were fairly simple. He sent out 240 letters to randomly selected people in the US that included the information of a specific person, the eventual target. The individuals were asked if they knew this person, and if not, they were asked to forward the letter to someone in their network who they thought might know this person. This process would continue until the letter eventually reached the target.

Milgram would then count the number of times the letter was forwarded and thereby extrapolate the average degree of separation. At the end of his experiment 60 letters had reached the target described in the letter. The average number of steps taken was between five to six, providing physical evidence for the theory of six degrees of separation.”

To test the theory in the 21st century, Sysomos used 5.2 billion Twitter friendships as their sample. This number includes both following and follower relationships. The study described the separation between any two people on Twitter as their “friendship distance”. The graphic below visualises this: Each circle represents a person while an overlap represents a friendship (either following or follower).

Sysomos found that the most common friendship distance on Twitter, at 41% of users, was five steps and that practically nobody is separated by more than seven steps (2.08%).

For just over one third of Twitter users, four steps are all that is needed to connect with anyone on the planet.

The table shows the number of steps between Twitter’s users, and the percentage of total Twitter friendships within a specific number of steps.

In conclusion, Sysomos discovered that Twitter is largely made up of small circular social friend networks. A Twitter user would, on average, only have to make 3.32 steps to find someone who was following, which means that “if you trace your friends, and their friends and so on, in 3.32 steps on average you will discover a follower of your own”.

With the advent of Twitter it seems ironic that, as the population of the world gets larger and larger, you have the tools to get in touch with almost any of them, anywhere, at anytime.