Six degrees: What does it mean to be Facebook friends?

Facebook released some pioneering social-networking research last night on its blog — the kind that only a company with over 700 million active users and 60 billion connections could help produce — that looked at how closely we’re connected to those around us. The headline everyone pulled from the study was that the famous “six degrees of separation” originally described by psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s has been reduced to less than five, or even four in some cases, on the giant social network. But has it really? What do we mean when we friend someone on Facebook, and how does that translate to the “real world”?

In the study, which Facebook did in collaboration with a number of researchers at the University of Milan in Italy, the network looked at the connections between all 721 million active Facebook users, or more than 10 percent of the world’s population — a staggering 69 billion “friendships.” As the company noted, this makes the research by far the largest social-networking study ever released. By contrast, Milgram’s famous experiment in 1967 (which he based on an idea described in a Hungarian short story from 1929) involved postcards sent by regular mail between just 296 volunteers.

Is Facebook making us more connected to each other?

According to the Facebook post, the number of “hops” or connections required to get from one person to another in virtually any location around the world (any location with Internet access and Facebook users, that is) was six, and more than 90 percent of users were actually connected by five hops — equivalent to four degrees of separation rather than Milgram’s six. And the number of hops has actually decreased over time: Facebook said the average distance was 5.28 in 2008 and it is now just 4.7.

But does that mean we’re more connected than we used to be? Have the ubiquitous connections that social networks like Facebook and Twitter and Google+ (s goog) allow for brought us closer together, regardless of where we live? In some senses, that’s clearly the case — as “viral videos” and other social-networking phenomena like the current “pepper-spraying cop” illustrate. But just because I choose to share an LOLcat photo or a funny video, or post my Spotify music preferences via Facebook’s new “frictionless sharing” features, does that mean I’m closely connected to the people in my social graph?

There’s no question I’m closely connected to some of those people. As many Facebook users seem to do, I use the network mainly for keeping in touch with family and close friends. I have a large number of people I’ve “friended” for a variety of other reasons — work or other forms of professional relationship, etc. — but I don’t pay very close attention to those connections, at least not on a daily basis (some people are more disciplined about who they friend, but for better or worse I’m not). So in what sense am I connected to these people? In many cases, I don’t even know where they live.

I suppose I could ask them to forward a postcard, as Milgram did in his experiment, but that’s about it (it should be noted that sociologists have criticized Milgram’s research on a number of levels, including the validity of the small pool of volunteers he chose from). If anything, the connections I have to the majority of my social graph are the extreme version of what sociologist Mark Granovetter called “weak ties”:┬áthe ones we have to nodding acquaintances, as opposed to the strong ties we have to family, church, etc.

In some cases, even weak ties can be very powerful

So Facebook has arguably improved our ability to create and maintain these kinds of “weak ties,” but it’s still not clear just how much value there is in the ability to see when someone you went to school with decades ago is playing FarmVille or Mafia Wars. Granovetter and other sociologists have argued there’s more value than we think in these ties under certain circumstances, and as one of the researchers who helped with the latest Facebook study noted, this is particularly the case when it comes to spreading news of world events.

But can this spread of information actually influence the real world? In the case of the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, there is some reason to believe it can. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who has studied the flow of information about such events through Facebook and other networks, says one of the biggest ways they can contribute is by making it obvious how many people support revolution — and thus, breaking down the barriers that often stand between talk and action. Status updates and group memberships and photos and videos, she says, can create an “information cascade” that overcomes the typical information vacuum people often experience in such situations.

That suggests the connections we create through Facebook — even the most innocuous, or the weakest of our “weak ties” — can have a profound effect in some cases. Hopefully, Facebook will make more of this kind of research available (instead of forcing those who are trying to do it to delete their research, as data scientist Pete Warden was last year), since we’re all effectively taking part in an unprecedented sociology experiment just by belonging to the giant social network. It would be nice to use that to find out more about how we actually connect with and influence each other in important ways.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Petteri Sulonen and Richard Engel of NBC