Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Is the World Shrinking?

Humans are a social primates; that’s an evolutive fact that has been around for a while to the point that it is now collective common knowledge. This presents an obvious advantage if you add to the mix the fact that not only we create bonds to other close members of our species but we like to relate with basically any other members that we came across. We have evolved to be nice with each other. This grants us the ability to extend our influence and our inner circle beyond social, cultural and geographical constraints.

This has been an interesting phenomenon that has been studied for quite a long time. We have been tracing our origins with family trees and trying to find out what we fit in the big picture of society. One of those attempts to understand it is the pretty famous 6 degrees of separation (Also known as the Kevin Bacon's degrees of Separation) idea. The basic idea is this; Imagine that every person in the planet is a dot, and every relationship between them are lines that connect them, therefore creating a network. 6 degrees of separation means that you can connect every pair of dots by no more than 6 steps in the network. That means that you can find you are indirectly connected to any person in the planet (including Kevin Bacon) by the friend of by the friend of by the friend of by the friend of by the friend of your friend.
This idea has recently been put to the test by Data team and the University of Milan with surprising results. Using Facebook data to track peoples relationships they have found out that the average number of steps that connects to people have been dropping from since 2008 from 6 to 5.28 and 4.47. This is something remarkable if you put some though on it.

The transcendent element of this idea is that it can prove that we are in fact more connected and more interdependent than we are aware of. Human group’s interactions are amazingly complex and have a great inherent power within them. We are living an era where a single individual can cause a ripple effect that can be perceived worldwide in a matter of hours, sometimes even less. Human interconnection is the base of modern viral marketing and publicity. Tools like Facebook are allowing us to extend our relationships beyond real world limits and also allowing scientists to understand how we connect with each other.

A regular person has an average of 130 friends in Facebook, this is quite relevant if you take into consideration that according to neurological studies a regular person has the brain capacity to maintain a stable social circle of only 148-156 persons (called the Dunbar Number). This means that close relationships are so complex that your brain can only follow-up 156 individuals. So Facebook is a tool that not only allows us to keep contact beyond geographical constraints but it also allow us to push the limit of our brains to that imposed by our relative neocortex size.

Imagine for a second all the cooperative power that we are building up as we close the gaps between each other.

So the world in fact is not shrinking, it’s just that distance matter less every day.