A social graph derived from billions of instant messages validates folklore that there are about six degrees of separation between any two strangers on the planet.
A research team at US software giant Microsoft studied 30 billion instant messages sent by 240 million people in June of 2006 and determined that, on average, any two could be linked in 6.6 steps.
“We’ve been able to put our finger on the social pulse of human connectivity – on a planetary scale – and we’ve confirmed that it’s indeed a small world.” Microsoft researcher Eric Horvitz told AFP on Monday.
“Over the next few decades, new kinds of computing applications, from smart networks to automated translation systems, will help make the world even smaller, with closer social connections and deeper understanding among people.”
Horvitz and colleague Jure Leskovec estimate that the Microsoft Messenger chats they studied amount to half of the instant messages sent worldwide in June two years ago.
The researchers stress that they were not privy to the contents of messages and that information indicating people’s identities was removed.
“Messenger data gives us a unique opportunity to study distances in the social network,” the researchers wrote in a paper detailing their work.
“To our knowledge, this is the first time a planetary-scale social network has been available to validate the well-known ‘6 degrees of separation’ finding.”
The “6 degrees of separation” premise stems from an oft-cited 1969 study by Stanley Milgram and Jeffrey Travers.
Milgram and Travers asked nearly 300 people in the US state of Nebraska to send a letter to someone in Boston through acquaintances.
People were considered one degree apart from a friend, two degrees away from a friend’s friend and so on.
While most of the letters didn’t make it to the designated recipient, those that did arrived with an average of 6.2 degrees of separation from senders.
The results were not considered scientifically reliable, but inspired a play, a film, a game, and a charitable sixdegrees.org website launched by actor Kevin Bacon in 2007.
“We used a population sample that is more than two million times larger than the group studied earlier and confirmed the classic finding,” Horvitz and Leskovec concluded.