Posted tagged ‘Six Degrees of Separation’

The big myth of social networking

16 August 2011

A little while ago, someone tweeted his awe of the fact that over 600 million people are connected to each other on the one platform, ie Facebook.

Facebook friendships visualised

This got me thinking, are all these people really “connected”…?

I’m sure you’re familiar with the Six Degrees of Separation principle. It holds that on average, anyone is only 6 personal relationships away from anyone else. Whether Facebook adds anything to the equation is questionable.

Take Madonna for example.

Madonna has a Facebook page – well, I think it’s her. There’s a problem already. For the sake of this argument, let’s accept it’s her.

I can write a message on her wall and hope she replies, but that’s not really the point. I could also mail her a letter or press the buzzer at her Hollywood mansion.

The point is connectedness. For the theory to hold up, I must be only 6 Facebook users away from the Material Girl, and thereby be able to engineer a personal introduction.

Maybe in theory I can, but while I know who I’m connected to, I don’t really know who they’re connected to, let alone who they are connected to. And that’s only a few degrees in.

Sure, I could ask “Does anyone know anyone who knows anyone who knows anyone who knows anyone who knows Madonna?”, but that would be a tad silly. No one could possibly know.

Alternatively, I could say “I’m trying to meet Madonna – can you arrange an introduction? Pass it on…”

Again in theory, my message would reach someone who could indeed arrange an introduction, but the probability of that happening is ridiculously low. Human nature dictates that a rapidly diminishing number of people will pass it on, let alone to the extent required to get a hit.

So while 600 million people are technologically connected on Facebook, practically they aren’t because everyone’s effective network only stretches so far.

The best we can do is stretch it as far as possible.

Network Theory

29 October 2008

Last night I watched a fascinating documentary on the ABC called How Kevin Bacon Cured Cancer.

The title of the show alludes to the humourous yet intriguing trivia game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, which itself is based on the urban myth Six Degrees of Separation. In the game, players try to connect random movie stars to Kevin Bacon in as few steps as possible.

Take Cate Blanchett for example. Cate was in the movie The Shipping News with Deborah Grover, who was in Where the Truth Lies with Kevin Bacon. Cate therefore has a “Bacon number” of 2.

Cate Blanchett was in the movie The Shipping News with Deborah Grover, who was in Where the Truth Lies with Kevin Bacon.

Alternatively, Deborah Mailman was in Lucky Miles with Don Hany, who was in The TV Set with Kathryn Joosten, who was in Rails & Ties with Kevin Bacon. Deborah therefore has a Bacon number of 3.

Deborah Mailman was in Lucky Miles with Don Hany, who was in The TV Set with Kathryn Joosten, who was in Rails & Ties with Kevin Bacon.

Try it yourself at The Oracle of Bacon.

Network spheres, courtesy of gerard79, stock.xchng.Small-world networks

Networks that have a small average shortest path length between nodes, along with high clustering coefficients, are known as “small world networks”.

The Six Degrees myth prompted Duncan Watts of Columbia University and Steven Strogatz of Cornell University to mathematically analyse a range of real-world networks. Their paper demonstrated that the nervous system of a worm, the power grid of the western United States, and yes, the Hollywood filmerati, are all examples of small-world networks. In fact, many systems in the real world are small-world networks.

A common characteristic of small-world networks are “hubs” – those relatively few nodes that have relatively high numbers of connections to other nodes.

Applicability to e-learning

Network theory has been applied to activities as diverse as epidemic control and counter terrorism. I wonder if it can also be applied to e‑learning?

Leaving the obvious (Facebook) aside, let’s consider blogs. Individual blogs frequently link to other blogs, creating the network that we call the “blogosphere”.

If we analyse the blogosphere through the lens of network theory, can we identify the hubs and, by inference, isolate the key sources of knowledge? Should those (relatively) few blogs then be the ones you put into your blogroll?

I’m sure there are countless more potential applications of network theory to e-learning. It’s certainly an avenue worthy of further exploration.