I’m sure you’ve all heard someone talk about six degrees of separation. Essentially, the premise of the idea – once thought to be only a myth – is that everyone on the planet is connected in just a few steps. Six, to be exact.
As unlikely as this may seem, in the not too distant past scientists established a new discipline of network science, to focus on the very nature of such connections and how people – and other groups – act according to others’ behaviour, and the implications of such interactions in the real world.
The science of networks was primarily born out of the work of Professor Steve Strogatz of Cornell University and Duncan Watts of Columbia University. Watts was a graduate student of Strogatz at Cornell and the pair were interested in how individual behaviour aggregated to collective behaviour.
Strogatz and Watts recognised that physics is the science of particles and individual behaviour, and interactions up the scale of single atoms, and chemistry is the discipline of the interaction between these atoms. Working upwards along this spectrum, next comes molecular biology, then medical science, ecology, epidemiology, sociology, and economics. However, there was no study yet that specifically considered what the pair were fascinated by – how an initial disruption to a system or ‘network’ of sorts makes subsequent disruptions more likely. This pointed to a inadequate understanding of interdependencies in systems, and collective behaviour in general.
‘a network is nothing more than a collection of objects connected to each other in some fashion’ Watts, 2003, p. 27
Strogatz and Watts identified the power plant networks across the United States as the world’s largest machine. An organisation that grew itself to meet growing demands of industry and production, there were 5000 power plants across the country and yet ‘only a few hops’ between one plant and another. Similarly, neurons in the brain are only a few synapses away from another neuron and thus, what really were huge networks of interconnected individuals were actually worlds connected by invisible links which made such apparent big worlds, in fact small.
Another Professor, Albert Laszlo-Barabasi of Northeastern University also found promise in network science. He began to study the possibilities networks offered as a way of predicting the future based on the hypothesis that events are never isolated and that they depend on each other. This too became a study of understanding the interactions within a network and in the mid 1990s, the world wide web became a vital source through which network science could be furthered and understood.
Laszlo-Barabasi first thought the structure of the web would be completely random but soon discovered links weren’t evenly spread across a bell curve. A few webpages had thousands of links and thus, were identified as ‘hubs’. Further research enabled Laszlo-Barabasi to understand that removing small nodes of a network will shrink a network but the implications overall were minimal. However, if a hub was removed, the system would collapse and fall apart. It was this finding that became a hub of its own for other researchers who were exploring the power of six degrees. As Watts writes, if the science of networks is to succeed it must become:
‘a manifestation of its own subject matter, a network of scientists collectively solving problems that cannot be solved by any single individual or even any single discipline’ p. 29
This framework of understanding can be applied to society and it could be argued that network science is actually ‘a sociological research project with a storied history’ (Watts, 2003, p. 37) and the foundation of the 21st century. Watts argues that the language for talking about networks has lent the concept real analytical power and has led scientists and humanity to see the globe as a dynamic network, constantly evolving and changing in time, driven by the activities or decisions of its components.
Network science is now thought of as an interdisciplinary field with applications in fields as diverse as genetics, mathematics, telecommunication and digital technology. It is used to predict disease epidemics (via airports) and is also part of the solution to prevent its global spread through the sharing of antivirals across a global network. The US Navy is said to have used predictive networks in the capture of Saddam Hussein and biologists are using predictive networks to identify genes that put patients at risk for cancer.
And of course, there is the obvious rise and rise of social networking that has literally changed the way we interact, as well as seek, source and utilise new knowledge and information.
My fellow Networked Media student, Kim, says Facebook has reduced the degrees of separation from six to four point seven four (4.74). It’s true though that when I add a friend on Facebook or accept a Friend Request, I’m genuinely surprised if we have no mutual friends. The science of networks says this is because we all tend to know people like ourselves, making the world very small but very clustered. But a single random link can have an enormous effect and shrink path lengths between people and groups in a instant. All of us know someone who has moved away for work, family, school, study or pleasure, and it is this random connection that brings the world together.
The world doesn’t gradually get smaller – it jumps off a cliff. And it is these jumps that help us to form relationships with people thousands of kilometres away because technology and network science has made physical distance almost redundant.
Here’s the documentary I watched to gain insight into the whole six degrees theory.
And if you’re up for a fun, practical way of furthering your understanding of the power of networks, check out the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, The Oracle of Bacon, developed by Brett Tjaden and Patrick Reynolds. It seems bacon really is at the heart of everything in this world.