Feeling a little closer to your fellow man today? You’re not alone. Facebook has discovered that the classic “six degrees of separation” is now down to exactly 3.57—at least, if you’re connected to the social network.
If you somehow missed the 1990s, when the “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” game was popular, “six degrees of separation” refers to the theory that everyone on Earth can be connected through six (or fewer) people. The extent to which this is true is a matter of debate, but it’s one of those cultural truisms that seems to resonate with the population.
But according to Facebook, research conducted on the site indicates that for its users, that degree of separation is only 3.57. “The calculation includes only connections between the network’s 1.59 billion users, ignoring the approximately 5.7 billion other humans who have yet to set up accounts,” notes Jonah Bromwich in the New York Times.
This is actually down from 3.74 in 2011, the last time this research was conducted, when Facebook had only half the users it has today. And in 2008, the number was even higher: 4.28, according to Husna Haq in the Christian Science Monitor.
And certainly some Facebook users are closer than others; founder Mark Zuckerberg’s number is 3.17, while COO Sheryl Sandberg’s is 2.92.
Frankly, these findings aren’t terribly surprising. While Facebook claims to have a very large number of users (around 1.04 billion daily users for December 2015), these users do, after all, have a lot in common: They all are literate, live in places with electricity and Internet, and have access to computers (or smartphones) with Facebook accounts.
All this may be very interesting, but how does it help you in business? The point is, degrees of separation is more than just a fun parlor game. It can help you promote your product, solve a business problem, or get a job.
“Having a wide range of personality types in a population can actually enhance the odds that a new idea or product will catch on,” Duncan Watts, author of Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, told Harvard Business Review. “We also think that information cascades can be squelched if people in a network are exposed to too many opinions, or too few. Clearly, poorly connected networks inhibit idea contagion. What’s less obvious is that if the people in a network are too densely connected, that may also prevent a fad or a product from catching on.”
The same factor applies, Watts explains, when forming teams to solve business problems. “The roots of even seemingly straightforward problems can be far-flung and thus require a surprisingly broad range of institutional knowledge to be resolved,” he says. “No single person can know all this, but companies like Honda have discovered that, given a sufficiently diverse portfolio of participants, even quite complicated causal chains can be identified quickly.”
It turns out that a similar factor is at play when job-hunting. You may think that the best way to network to find a job is to make sure you’re good friends with a whole lot of other CIOs. While there’s some truth to that, what can help more is knowing people who aren’t CIOs, and not necessarily being good friends with them.
This is why you need a Lois Weisberg in your life.
Popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, Lois Weisberg is one of those knows-everybody people he used as a model for his concept of “connectors.” “The people who know everyone, in some oblique way, may actually run the world,” he writes. “They spread ideas and information. They connect varied and isolated parts of society.”
And that’s the crucial factor, Gladwell adds. It is not merely that Lois Weisberg – who passed away in January – knew lots of people, but that she belonged to lots of different worlds.
In the case of the original “six degrees” experiment, it turns out that in many cases just a couple of people proved to be pivotal in making the connections. “Six degrees of separation doesn’t simply mean that everyone is linked to everyone else in just six steps,” Gladwell writes. “It means that a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those few.”
This is the advantage of the “strength of weak ties,” or people you don’t know well, such as the Loises in your life, Gladwell writes. “Your friends, after all, occupy the same world that you do,” he writes. “They work with you, or live near you, and go to the same churches, schools, or parties. How much, then, do they know that you don’t know? Mere acquaintances, on the other hand, are much more likely to know something that you don’t.”
This finding also fits in with other research. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar theorized in the early 1990s that a human being can have only up to 150 “meaningful” relationships. This became known as “Dunbar’s number,” Haq writes.
And while Facebook and other social networks aren’t necessarily good at helping you find close friends, they can be good at creating the “weak ties” that cross social and demographic boundaries – essentially helping to find the Lois Weisbergs,. “Social networks allow people to cultivate casual friendships, which don’t require much emotional investment,” Haq writes.
This isn’t a bad thing. Facebook friends may not be the sort of person you’d turn to for support in a crisis, but they’re just the “weak tie” you’d need when you want to promote your product or look for a job.
Look for three criteria—Breadth, connectivity, and dynamism—to help use your network to help with business needs, recommends Herminia Ibarra in Harvard Business Review.
- Breadth: How diverse is your network? It should include people both inside and outside your company, as well as both senior and junior people.
- Connectivity: Ibarra provides a technique for measuring the “density” of your network, or how many of the people in it already know each other. Networks that are too dense don’t help you expand.
- Dynamism: How much does your network change over time? You need to be adding people continually, as well as curating your relationships within your network. How often do you contact them to find out what’s new with them and how you can help each other?
“If you leave things to chance and natural chemistry, then your network will be too inward-facing and not diverse enough,” Ibarra warns.
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