Despite enabling almost instantaneous global communication, email appears not to have made the world a more close-knit community.
Duncan Watts and colleagues at Cornell University in New York conducted a massive email experiment to test the theory of “six degrees of separation”, i.e. that everyone in the world can be linked through just six social ties.
More than 60,000 people from 166 different countries took part in the experiment. Participants were assigned one of 18 target people. They were asked to that person by sending email to people they already knew and considered potentially “closer” to the target. The targets were chosen at random and included a professor from America, an Australian policeman and a veterinarian from Norway.
The researchers found that it in most cases it took between five and seven emails to contact the target. Watts says this shows that email has not fundamentally changed the way social ties are created.
“In this experiment, the internet is simply the tool we use to transmit messages,” Watts told New Scientist, in an email. “Compared with offline interactions like work, school, family, and community, I don’t see email as being a particularly compelling medium for generating social ties.”
The concept of six degrees of separation emerged from a similar postal experiment conducted by the social psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1967. Milgram asked volunteers to send a package by mail to one of a hundred people chosen at random.