Facebook Analyzes Big Data, Concludes World is Smaller

big data six degrees facebook 300x225 photo (data analytics)

Author: Linda Rosencrance
Spotfire Blogging Team

big data six degrees facebook 300x225 photo (data analytics)

Author: Linda Rosencrance
Spotfire Blogging Team

I’m sure you’ve heard of the “six degrees of separation” theory, which refers to the idea that it takes just six steps to connect any two people on earth.

For example: Person 1 has coffee with Person 2, who once worked with Person 3, who dated Person 4, who went to school with Person 5, who is Person 6’s mother, who used to babysit Person 1. (I think that works out.)

Pretty cool, right?

Well, now Facebook’s data analysis team contends that on the social networking site the average user is only 4.74 degrees away from any other Facebook user. “Thus, when considering even the most distant Facebook user in the Siberian tundra or the Peruvian rainforest, a friend of your friend probably knows a friend of their friend,” Facebook’s data team wrote in a blog post about its research. 

To reach its conclusions, Facebook, in collaboration with the Universita degli Studi di Milano, examined all of its 721 million active users (more than 10% of the global population). According to the research, 99.6% of all Facebook users were separated from any other Facebook user by five degrees or less and 92% were separated by only four degrees.

And Facebook said that the distance between users is dwindling fast. “The average distance in 2008 was 5.28 hops, while now it is 4.74,” Facebook’s data team says.

One of the things Facebook’s researchers discovered was that while people throughout the world are linked via friends of friends of friends, a user’s friends most likely are the same age and come from the same country. In the US, for example, users on average are connected by three intermediary contacts, Facebook says.

Facebook’s data team compares its work to that of social psychologist Stanley Milgram, who conducted experiments in the 1960s to prove that people are separated by only six contacts.

“The experiment showed that not only are there few degrees of separation between any two people, but that individuals can successfully navigate these short paths, even though they have no way of seeing the entire network,” Facebook’s data team says of Milgram’s experiment.

According to the CNN story, however, there seems to be some differences between their reports—something Facebook recognizes as well.

“It is important to note that while Milgram was motivated by the same question (how many individuals separate any two people), these numbers are not directly comparable; his subjects only had limited knowledge of the social network, while we have a nearly complete representation of the entire thing,” according to Facebook’s data team. “Our measurements essentially describe the shortest possible routes that his subjects could have found.”

As the author of the CNN story points out, “The findings do highlight the idea that the Internet is bringing people closer together—something social media users can sense with or without this data.”

As one Facebook user who commented on the story says, “Beyond any commercial purpose, Facebook data can help us understand how human society is organized, how ideas spread, and how we are connected to each other. Very cool.”

Very cool, indeed.

Next Step: Use the TIBCO Spotfire gift finder to find the perfect gift for each Facebook friend on your holiday shopping list.