Milgram and the social networks that make the world a smaller place

postinoWe are “way back” in 1967, where there is no personal computer, no smartphones and, above all, no internet and no social networks, at most, if we are NASA scientists, we have at our disposal a supermainframe (computer) big like a building and with the power of elaboration of a modern scientific calculator.
During the boom years of the 1950s and the 1960s, while the great Mike Bongiorno was creating the game show, on italian television, “Lascia o Raddoppia” (“Leave It or Double It“), another American was analising, with a simple experiment, the complexity of the American relational net of the Modern Age.
We are speaking of the sociologist Stanley Milgram and his visionary theory “of the small world”, visionary because of its capability to gather the complexity of the social fabric due to the processes of urbanization that took place during the twentieth century, visionary because able to underline the net’s evolution, the dense network among the people, visionary for the demonstration of an ample and complex phenomenon, the globalization.
To be more specific, the theory is not completely original; it is based on the story “Chain-links” published in 1929 by the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy. The story (we provide you the English version in PDF format), even if short, hypothesizes connections among people all over the world in a fast and global way, all this taking place against the 1929 great depression, the most catastrophic event in history on a global scale.
In 1967, Milgram selected, randomly, some Americans in the Midwest asking them to send a long distance package to a stranger of whom they knew only the name and the job, but not the address. In order to reach the goal, they were allowed to use their own personal network of acquaintances, sending the package to a mediator, considered by them closer, or rather, with greater possibility of identifying the receiver.
It is said that Stanley himself was surprised by the final result, the package had reached the “unknown” consignee through an average of five – seven passages, we may say very few.
Milgram was proving how the Modern Age with its (then) modern (now archaic) systems of communication had created a dense relational network, making “the world smaller”. The project got published on “Psychology Today”, where it became famous as “the theory of the six degrees of separation”, inflaming the International Scientific Community divided on the chosen method and the achievements.
The debate continued, on a purely theoretical level, until the internet’s advent; the experiments done in the 21st century had given a new and decisive impulse to the Milgram’s theory.
In 2001, thanks to the electronic mail’s accessibility, the first global and social tool (along with the SMS…), Duncan Watts, professor of Columbia University, repeated the research on a much more significant sample of users, around 50.000. The research did nothing but confirming Milgram’s theory, the degrees of separation proving to be exactly six.
In 2006 two researchers of Microsoft, studying algorithmically the conversations records of the chat MSN messenger, came to the hypothetical result of 6.6 levels of separation.
And then what? Then our world has become 2.0, the social networks have arrived.
In 2011 some of the researchers of the University of Milan in team with some of the Facebook’s experts had carried out a test which, had permitted to check the “degree of proximity” of two subjects on a planetary scale (see “The degrees of separation on Facebook“)
No possible controversy on this sample, certainly significant, 65 billion of relationships and no doubt on the final result, an average of 3,74 degrees of separation, even less than what found by Milgram.
In the first decade of the 21st Century the degrees of separation are less than four, the world (2.0), as Milgram had assumed, is “very small” indeed.
It is important to underline how this result has been obtained: there was a meticulous work carried out by an extremely heterogeneous team for both competences and the used tools: sociologists, university researchers, computer experts, email, log trace, “Big data” of social type and technical tools of the latest generation and last but not least, the involuntary complicity of a significant part of the earth’s population! As the old saying goes: unity is strength!
We believe that the release of smartphones and instant messengers over the last five years, could have only reduced subsequently such distance, in a very significant way. The new way of communication “one to many” of a broadcast type, sometimes even of “multicast” type, can only amplify our acquaintances network and confirm Milgram’s experiments and Karinthy’s vision.
What can we say, there is no doubt that “the global social network” is not the direct consequence of the Internet’s advent: the industrialization, the great urban movements, the release of the communication tools such as mail and telephone as well as of the means of transport such as automobile and airplane, had already created more than fifty years ago a dense network, even though invisible, among people well over the secular bonds among communities, markets, nations, banks, etc…
The advent of internet has probably made this network wider and more instant, always accessible, allowing us to be at the center of our friendships or acquaintances, visually and sentimentally as well.
Internet has not created the global social network, thanks to the imagination of Frigyes Karinthy and to the concreteness of Stanley Milgram we may truly say that in the 20th century the network was already global, even though not instant, multimedia and emotional as it is today.
We are all connected thanks to internet and smartphones, but Sociology, according to the numbers, shows us that this is not something new, many of our parents were already connected in the past.

WorldTwoDotZero cannot happen again that someone should  dare disturb me when I am at play, when I set free the phantoms of my imagination, when I think! (Frigyes Karinthy)


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