Facebook, Yahoo Partner for Six Degrees Experiment

Social scientists from Yahoo and Facebook are now joining forces to see if people can connect around the world within six degrees of separation.

The new partnership, called the Small World Experiment, was launched this week to test out social psychologist Stanley Milgram's flawed but famous "small world" experiment in the 1960s, according to the San Jose Mercury News. The site is now asking for volunteers to join the experiment and be assigned a target person to contact. However, volunteers can only pass a message to a friend in hopes it will reach that person within six degrees. (See an article on the original 1967 Milgram study.)

"You really couldn't have done this until very recently," Duncan Watts, Yahoo's principal research scientist who is leading the experiment told the Mercury News. "It's a milestone, in terms of it's the kind of research question you can answer now that you could have imagined 50 years ago but that you couldn't have answered 50 years ago -- or even 15 years ago."

Facebook users each have an average of 130 friends on the social network and are part of a user's "social graph," according to Facebook's chief data scientist Cameron Marlow. "This is our best chance to measure this fundamental piece of the social graph, so the more users that participate, the clearer the signal will be," Marlow said.

Although the experiment didn't speak to its exact methodology, Facebook does have more than 700 million users -- a healthy chunk of the planet's 6 billion people -- so its sample size is likely the biggest ever for any social science study. The only problem is that many may look at an experiment conducted by Yahoo and Facebook as something less than scientific.

Watts has anticipated this. "It's not 6 billion, but it's twice the size of the U.S. population. If it works on this network, (the six degrees hypothesis) really is true," Watts said. "I don't think anyone can say, 'Oh it works on Facebook, but it really doesn't count.' This is an opportunity to show that it's true or not true."

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