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Instant-Messagers Really Are About Six Degrees from Kevin Bacon

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The Microsoft Messenger project, which was presented at a technical conference in Beijing in April, went further.

"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 by Travers and Milgram," the researchers said.

For the purposes of their experiment, two people were considered to be acquaintances if they had sent one another a text message. The researchers looked at the minimum chain lengths it would take to connect 180 billion different pairs of users in the database. They found that the average length was 6.6 steps and that 78 percent of the pairs could be connected in seven hops or less.

Some pairs, however, were separated by as many as 29 hops.

"Via the lens provided on the world by Messenger, we find that there are about '7 degrees of separation' among people,'' they wrote.

Microsoft Messenger use is most intense in North America, Europe and Japan, and in the coastal regions of the rest of the world. While the study sample is huge, there is little way of knowing whether Microsoft Messenger users are as socially connected as the rest of humanity.

Why does it matter that people from around the world are closely tied together? Researchers said that the knowledge might have applications for political organizations, charity efforts, natural disaster relief and missing-person searches.

"They could create large meshes of people who could be mobilized with the touch of a return key," Horvitz said.

It also means that, strictly speaking, six degrees of separation might be just a bit off. It's closer to seven, at least in their study.

"For a piece of folklore, it wasn't bad," said Duncan J. Watts, one of the Columbia researchers, now at Yahoo Research. "It was off only in its detail."


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