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Microsoft 'proves' six degrees of separation theory

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Microsoft researchers claim to have proved the pop-social-psychology shibboleth that we are no more that six degrees of separation removed from any other human being on the planet.

The six degrees of separation theory first espoused by Stanley Milgram has given students and newspaper columnists something to talk about since the late 1960s.

Researchers at Redmond apparently took it upon themselves to analyse messages sent by users of its IM service in June 2006. The database of messages – stripped of identifying information we are assured – yielded 180 billion pairs of users.

The researchers found that 78 per cent of the pairs could be connected in seven hops or less, and that the average number of hops from one individually to another was 6.2. However, before you start thinking that you might be able to get into Natalie Portman’s inbox by the end of the day, the researchers said some users could only be connected by 29 hops.

"What we're seeing suggests there may be a social connectivity constant for humanity," Eric Horvitz, one of the researchers told the Washington Post. "People have had this suspicion that we are really close. But we are showing on a very large scale that this idea goes beyond folklore."

Which is fine as long as you believe that humanity consists of people in rich countries who are rich enough to own computers and so time-rich they they can sit around playing on IM all day, rather than, say, growing food to feed their families.

Interestingly, a search of the Microsoft website throws up no details of the research, and all the coverage seems to be traceable back to the Washington Post story on Saturday.

Which simply demonstrates the long-held popular belief that 79 per cent of what you read is no more than seven degrees of separation away from a canned PR briefing from a comms professional to a tame journalist on a major newspaper. ®

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