in Learning

6.6 Degrees of separation on average

Stanley Milgram was a very innovative social experimenter. I will keep his experiments on authority for another blog post and instead will focus on his Small world experiment, which I have always found fascinating.

In 1969 he tried to figure out whether the world was becoming a “small world” network by sending out packages to random people in the US and asking them to try and get the package in as little steps as possible to a contact in Boston. His research showed that people in the US seemed to be connected through three friendship links on average.

Some students later invented the “six degrees of kevin bacon” game (connecting each film actor to Bacon in 6 film cast lists or fewer) which popularised the term “six degrees of separation”.

Milgram’s research methodology had some problems and later attempts to redo the experiment using e-mail were never very successful (I personally tried to do a version of the experiment with my highschool students which failed miserably).

According to the Guardian Microsoft has now finally proved the theory using raw data from their messaging logs. The average degrees of separation globally (by people that use MSN at least) seems to be 6.6:

Researchers at Microsoft studied records of 30 billion electronic conversations among 180 million people in various countries, according to the Washington Post. This was ‘the first time a planetary-scale social network has been available,’ they observed. The database covered all the Microsoft Messenger instant-messaging network in June 2006, equivalent to roughly half the world’s instant-messaging traffic at that time.

This is an example of a new way of doing research. The amount of data that is being collected by some technology companies is so massive that you don’t need a theory anymore, you can just look at the patterns instead (see Wired’s The End of Theory).

What could this mean for learning? Imagine the amount of things we could find out about how people learn if we would have an equivalent of MSN or Facebook in the learning space! What would all Moodle logs combined tell us about how learning technology is used?

Which organisation will be the first to leverage our small world and use it for learning?