There may be six degrees of separation between any movie star and Kevin Bacon, but there are only four degrees between Facebook friends, a study says, showing how the site’s growth is bringing the world closer.
Scientists at the University of Milan, working with Facebook experts, reported Monday the average number of acquaintances separating any two people in the world was 4.74, but in the U.S., where more than half of people over the age of 13 are on Facebook, the number dropped to 4.37.
According to the New York Times, the original six degrees finding was published in 1967 by psychologist Stanley Milgram, and drawn from 296 volunteers who were asked to send a message by postcard through friends. Milgram’s research brought forth the popular game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, which links Hollywood actors all back to the “Footloose” star.
The new research, though, went through the 721 million Facebook users, representing more than one-tenth of the world’s population. The scientists used a set of algorithms to calculate the average distance between two people to determine the number of connections.
“When considering even the most distant Facebook user in the Siberian tundra or the Peruvian rain forest,” Facebook put on its blog, “a friend of your friend probably knows a friend of their friend.”
Worldwide growth for the site likely narrowed the degrees of separation between people. Facebook passed 700 million members this past summer, largely by adding numbers from around the world. The site’s most growth came from Brazil, where the social media company added nearly 2 million new members in May. The Philippines, Mexico and Argentina saw near or above one million new people join Facebook in May, and Indonesia bested those figures by adding 1.5 million Facebook friends during that same month.
Those worldwide connections make it even more likely that people in the U.S. will be able to find — and make — connections around the world, growing the website as even more people join up to interact with each other.
The Facebook paper, titled “Four Degrees of Separation,” says “it is reassuring to see that our findings show that people are in fact only four worlds apart, and not five.”
But even while people appear to be getting closer together, at least on paper, British professor Richard Wiseman says sites like Facebook and Twitter let people be in closer touch than ever before, but warns that they may not have the close connection the “friend” label implies.
“People may now have more contacts, but that should not be confused with the number of actual ‘friends’ they have,” he cautioned. “I doubt the algorithms, which were used to create this research, took into account how many people out of user’s list of ‘friends’ were actually people they knew personally. The six degrees of separation research was all about people who knew each other forming a chain. This is loosening that term.”