Cybertainment: 4.74 degrees of separation

December 4, 2011 12:00 am

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If they ever film a remake of "Six Degrees of Separation," will they have to retitle it "Four-Plus Degrees"?

Yes, according to the results of a research study that plotted the distance between connections in the vast global Facebook network.

The concept of six degrees of separation dates back to a 1929 short story by Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy titled "Lancszemek" ["Chains"], which suggested that the distance between any two people is at most six friendships.

In the '60s, social psychologist Stanley Milgram's "small world experiment" tested that theory by having people send postcards to others to measure this distance. That study resulted in 4.6 and 6.1 degrees, depending on the sample group.

In the 21st century, as people become more aware of their common friends and acquaintances through Facebook and other social networks, we're able to calculate that degrees-of-separation figure with far more accuracy.

Facebook, in collaboration with researchers at the Universita degli Studi di Milano, released the results of the first "world-scale social-network graph-distance computation." The research team used algorithms developed at the Milan university's Laboratory for Web Algorithmics, using the entire network of 721 million active Facebook users, with a total of 69 billion friendship links.

The average distance between two people -- 4.74 people, making the world even smaller than we thought it was.

The term "six degrees of separation" became a common expression as the title of a John Guare play that was later made into a film. It even became a trivia game called "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon," in which players could plot Hollywood connections linking actors and directors through their common film projects.

An actor or actress's degree of separation from Kevin Bacon is now known as their "Bacon number," which can be calculated at the Oracle of Bacon website. It's also an iPhone and Android app.

NPR has launched Infinite Player, an experimental online feature designed to tailor its news and other content to listeners' interests.

The player starts with the latest NPR newscast, which is followed by NPR news, arts/life and music features. The player has a "skip button," so the listener can pass on stories they're not interested in and move on to the next one. Over time, Infinite Player will be able to use these choices to create customized selections based on the user's preferences and interests.

The personalized news delivery echoes what other online services are doing -- like Pandora with music and the personalized social magazine app Flipboard.

Infinite Player is in beta testing and works only with Safari and Chrome Web browsers.

Adrian McCoy: or 412-263-1865.
First Published 2012-02-09 14:01:48
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