A study conduced by researchers at Microsoft Corp. used instant messaging data to confirm the theory that it takes just under seven steps to link every one in the world. The researchers reached their conclusion based on the addresses of 30 billion instant messages sent among 180 million people worldwide during a single month in 2006. They found that, on average, any two people are linked by fewer than seven acquaintances.The six-degrees idea had come under some criticism lately, but this new data point would seem to validate it pretty effectively.
What strikes me here is that the original concept was based on snail-mail communications: a researcher handed off a document to a random assortment of people and asked them to forward it to someone they knew personally, and so on, with the eventual goal of the letter making its way to one person unknown to the original recipient. (For quite a bit more detail on this study, see The Tipping Point.) The Microsoft study, however, was based on instant messaging, which means that, not only is the six-degrees rule basically valid, but that its valid for both print and electronic forms of communication.
Why is that interesting? Because electronic communication is supposed to make us all so much better-connected. Through my LinkedIn account I can browse not only my own friends and associates, but all of their friends and associates as well. I've got contact information stored in my Gmail and Yahoo! Mail accounts for people who I haven't thought of in years. With all of those electronic tools at my disposal that put me into contact with so many people, I apparently am still separated from Kevin Bacon, Barack Obama, Wilson Mandella, and Britney Spears by those same irreducible six degrees.
Just goes to show you: online community is largely an extension of offline community, rather than something separate and distinct. The same rules apply to both spheres.