Facebook Brings Us Closer Together and Further Apart

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Using algorithms, Facebook debunked the "six-degrees of separation" theory, determining that we are now a mere 4.74 degrees away from another human anywhere on the planet. The findings were in research Facebook released that suggests the social network is bringing people closer together. But is that really what Facebook has done for us? Because while social-network connections have increased the numbers of names and faces in our arsenal, those connections are superficial and at times, not even people we know at all. 

In 1967 Stanley Milgram published the original six-degrees experiment. Looking at a mere 296 subjects, who he asked to send a message in the mail through friends and friends of friends to a specific person in Boston, Milgram determined six connections separated people. In 2008, Facebook visited this principle, finding a slightly lower degree of separation, at 5.28. Now, as the social network has grown from 100 million in 2008, to over 700 million on 2011, it's down to 4.74.

That means that only 4.74 people stand between you and another Facebooker, anywhere in the world. And as you can see below that number gets even smaller when just looking within the very same country, which makes sense, considering most of our friends live near us. This research, then, suggests that the social network has brought the entire world closer together. "We show that, as Facebook has grown over the years representing an ever larger fraction of the global population, it has become even more connected,"  write the Facebook data team.

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But while looking through Facebook contacts might provide fodder for a fun geography game, it doesn't mean one has more friends. A 2010 study determined that the average person can only have 150 meaningful relationships. Facebook found that the average "friend" count is 190. No matter how many Facebook "friends" one has, what kind of relationships are those? Facebook's algorithm can't really determine how many of those Facebook friends a user actually knows. While some people restrict the Facebook requests they will accept, others will accept anyone who offers up friendship. In 2009, a study found that 41 to 46 percent of people "blindly accept" Facebook friend requests, meaning one might not even know the people in their friend group at all. And perhaps a sadder testament to the state of relationships: A recent Cornell study found our number of close friends has dropped to just two people. That average number hasn't changed much since Facebook's founding, meaning it might not be responsible for the drop. But it hasn't made it better, as this research might suggest, either. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.