Leadership / Management | Technology & Social Media

The world gets smaller, thanks to social media


We've long suspected that social media is bringing the world closer together. Now we have proof.

Ever since psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted his famous research on the subject in 1967, the popular "Six Degrees of Separation" theory has claimed that you can connect any two people in the world in six steps or fewer.

Thanks to social media, researchers believe that number is lower. Quite a bit lower, actually.

A recent study by the University of Milan and Facebook found that the average number of links between two random people is not six, but rather 4.74. That number drops to 4.37 in the United States.

"The experiment took one month," write John Markoff and Somini Sengupta in the New York Times. "The researchers used a set of algorithms developed at the University of Milan to calculate the average distance between any two people by computing a vast number of sample paths among Facebook users. ... 'When considering even the most distant Facebook user in the Siberian tundra or the Peruvian rain forest,' (Facebook) wrote on its blog, 'a friend of your friend probably knows a friend of their friend.'"

Similar theories have been floating around for a while. Grown Up Digital author Don Tapscott put social media at the center of his theory that if you have 750 or more social media connections, you are six degrees away from every person on earth. Microsoft used chat messages in a 2008 study to determine that we're all 6.6 degrees away from everyone else.

This is the first time, though, that I've heard researchers say that social media is shrinking that six-degree notion.

Of course, we can debate the definition of "friend" until we're blue in the face. Markoff and Sengupta do just that in their Times article, and I'll be the first to admit it: I have 478 Facebook friends, 568 LinkedIn contacts and 2,430 Twitter followers, and the number of them that I know personally is miniscule.

But does that diminish the value of my network? Not by a long shot. I'm frequently sending resources and information out to my social media contacts, and they're returning the favor. If I find value in a single piece of information shared by a random Facebook / LinkedIn / Twitter follower, that person and I are directly connected -- that's one degree of separation -- whether we know each other or not. And that happens over and over and over again.

Social media expands our networks exponentially. These days, when mind-blowing change is the only constant, that's more important than ever. Our networks are an invaluable tool for staying ahead of that change. It goes back to Tom Hood's brilliant formula for modern success: L > C. That is, your rate of learning must be greater than the rate of change.

And what is social media but one huge, revolutionary opportunity to learn all of the time?

Which brings me to today's nugget of wisdom from Tim Sanders. (You probably thought I had forgotten, didn't you?)

During our interview in San Antonio, Sanders told me that "being rich" is not about money; it's about meaning. You measure that meaning by the contributions you make over the course of your life.

"Meaning is the thing we should chase," he said. "Being rich as a professional means that I've leveraged my talents and my network of relationships to make a real contribution, either in my community or in my industry."

Did you catch that? Leverage your talents and your network of relationships to make a real contribution. Today, that network must include your social media connections. They will increase your ability to contribute exponentially.

With all of that in mind, are you ready to embrace -- I mean really embrace -- social media?


Bill Sheridan