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Facebook, Yahoo to Test Six Degrees of Separation

Participants in Yahoo's experiment will use their Facebook contacts to send a message to a randomly selected target

Yahoo is tapping Facebook's massive social network to test the old "six degrees of separation" theory. It's about time.

The theory holds that any two people in the world can be linked through a chain of six acquaintances. Harvard sociologist Stanley Milgram tested the idea in 1967, when he randomly selected 300 people in Omaha, Neb., to try to deliver a message to a stockbroker in Boston. The 60 people who completed the task required roughly six steps on average. Playwright John Guare popularized the phrase "Six Degrees of Separation" in a 1990 play and 1993 film that followed.

In Yahoo's test, dubbed the "Small World Experiment," participants will use their Facebook contacts to send a message to a randomly selected target. Facebook's membership exceeded 750 million as of July, so the sample size is potentially massive. According to ZDNet, the results will be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Unfortunately, the project seems troubled from the start because it relies on willing participants at every step of the chain. The first person in the chain must sign up for the project and agree to provide a whole bunch of personal information to Yahoo. After receiving a target, the user must select another Facebook friend to pass the message along. That friend will select another, and so on.

Here's the message that users send to their friends at each step in the chain:

"Help test the 6 degrees of separation hypothesis by trying to reach [target name and occupation] through a chain of Facebook friends. Click the link above to continue the chain."

The whole exercise risks looking like chain letter spam to anyone who doesn't know what's going on. It also relies on people to pick who they think has the best chance of knowing the target, when in reality the shortest route to the target may not be obvious to the participant.

Ideally, Facebook's six degrees of separation would instead be tested by algorithm, which would pick two random people and scan through all of their connections to see if a link can be established in six steps or less. Granted, I have no idea what kind of computing resources this would require, and chances are some users would get all cranky about privacy violations.

That said, if Yahoo's experiment successfully proves the theory, an algorithmic test might not be necessary. But I'm betting the theory will remain debatable for years to come.

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