The world is smaller than it has ever been. This observation reflects how the Internet and social media have strengthened our ability to connect with people and maintain those connections regardless of our physical distance. We have used social media to revive dormant friendships, make friends on the other side of the world, and expand our networks far beyond what was once possible.
Social media has also enabled us to document our connections, resulting in a “virtual rolodex”. We now have the ability to find almost anybody in the world through the mutual friends and connections that we have on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram, among others.
Stanley Milgram’s “Six Degrees of Separation” law states that we are between 5 and 6 connections removed from anybody in the world. So if my friend is 1 degree removed, and my friends friend is 2 degrees removed, I am only 3-4 more degrees removed from connecting with anybody in the entire world. This works because our networks grow exponentially with distance. In other words, if I have 100 friends, and each of those friends has 100 friends, my “2nd degree” number of connections is 10,000. My “3rd degree number of connections is 10,000 X 100 = 1,000,000. There will be overlapping of friends, but it doesn’t take long to get into a number in the billions, which covers the rest of the world.
To have some fun with this idea, play the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game (link), which can connect Kevin Bacon to any actor in the world where each degree of connection is defined by two actors acting in the same movie together. I bet you can’t find an actor more than 6 degrees removed from Kevin Bacon! Also check out this graphic from 3QuarksDaily, which connects former President G.W. Bush with some of his foreign enemies based on shared honorary degrees.
While this is a cool phenomenon, how can we put it to use? Manuel Cebrian is a leading expert on using our social networks to find people and solve problems. He found that we can get people to participate in social search to find extremely hard-to-find targets by providing the right incentives. And the solution, while not immediately obvious, is elegantly simple and powerful! Read his story about how these elegant incentives create a powerful search tool that works by crowdsourcing people’s social networks (link).
We are inspired by Manuel’s work and are applying the principles of his research to find rare disease patients and connect them with advocacy groups and research opportunities. Hope you enjoy the read!