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Can Facebook connect anyone within six degrees?

The chain that begins the experiment
The chain that begins the experimentYahoo!Research
The page that pull up as your assignment, the target person at the end of six degreesYahoo!Research

A new social media experiment attempts to answer the question if there are really only six degrees of separation between any two individuals, using Facebook as its connecting force.

With more than 750 million users on Facebook, which is equal to almost 11 percent of the world's population (nearly 7 billion and counting), the social network is prime proving ground for this idea.

Yahoo!Research calls it the Small World Experiment:

The purpose of this study is to test a long-standing theory in sociology that everyone on Earth is connected in a giant social network. In this experiment, participants called "Senders" forward messages to their Facebook friends in an attempt to reach a given "Target" individual, about whom they are given certain identifying information, in the shortest number of steps possible.

We've seen those connections on Facebook play out in our news stories, such as yesterday's post about how Facebook brought a mother and daughter together after 63 years apart, and how it has also, in the not too distant past, led to the capture of a thief bold enough to put his picture on his victim's page.

Sharad Goel, Yahoo! Senior research scientist, said the company publicly launched the experiment on Monday, as a Facebook app, and since then, about 10,000 "chains" have gone out. Goel said, "None of the chains have yet reached their targets — most have only traveled a few steps — but we hope to see some completed chains soon. We will likely continue the experiment for the next several months."

I tried it out and was given a "Target" in Portugal. I didn't know him. But I did immediately start thinking about friends who might know him, those who live in Europe, others who are also pursuing academic careers and others who have a myriad of connections. I chose one who is not only well-traveled, but also in circulates in academia. You can see how it picks up below:

The chain that begins the experimentYahoo!Research

But because it is an app that friends must allow access to their Facebook information, it also hinges on whether or not the friend you sent it to will agree to that access. Mine didn't. And that's her right, so my experiment was cut short. But, that's why they call it an experiment. Many variables need to be factored, like this.

For instance, I didn't fill in any more of my information than the bare minimum they requested. On the other hand, my "Target" has a lot of information on the site. In theory, that would make it easier to find a path to him.

Anyone can end their participation in the project by deleting the Small World app from their Facebook settings and clicking the "Discontinue from Experiment" link in the footer on the Yahoo! Research Small World Experiment website, or by contacting Goel (his contact information is on the site). 

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