What is Big Think?  

We are Big Idea Hunters…

We live in a time of information abundance, which far too many of us see as information overload. With the sum total of human knowledge, past and present, at our fingertips, we’re faced with a crisis of attention: which ideas should we engage with, and why? Big Think is an evolving roadmap to the best thinking on the planet — the ideas that can help you think flexibly and act decisively in a multivariate world.

A word about Big Ideas and Themes — The architecture of Big Think

Big ideas are lenses for envisioning the future. Every article and video on bigthink.com and on our learning platforms is based on an emerging “big idea” that is significant, widely relevant, and actionable. We’re sifting the noise for the questions and insights that have the power to change all of our lives, for decades to come. For example, reverse-engineering is a big idea in that the concept is increasingly useful across multiple disciplines, from education to nanotechnology.

Themes are the seven broad umbrellas under which we organize the hundreds of big ideas that populate Big Think. They include New World Order, Earth and Beyond, 21st Century Living, Going Mental, Extreme Biology, Power and Influence, and Inventing the Future.

Big Think Features:

12,000+ Expert Videos


Browse videos featuring experts across a wide range of disciplines, from personal health to business leadership to neuroscience.

Watch videos

World Renowned Bloggers


Big Think’s contributors offer expert analysis of the big ideas behind the news.

Go to blogs

Big Think Edge


Big Think’s Edge learning platform for career mentorship and professional development provides engaging and actionable courses delivered by the people who are shaping our future.

Find out more

That Very Depressing 4.74 Degrees of Separation

November 22, 2011, 12:35 PM

Have you ever poked around in the "People You May Know" box in Facebook? For the first few score people, it's a pleasure. Click: A person I forgot I knew. Click. I always wondered what happened to her. Click. Wow, seven mutual friends with this famous person! Click. Click. Click. It's fun until you realize that when you hit "See More," the list always auto-refreshes, and you will never, ever come to the end of People You May Know. This study, about which Facebook's research team posted last night, points to one reason: Though "everyone knows" that no two people are more than six degrees of separation from one another, in fact Facebook's 721 million users, with their 69 billion "friend" links, are actually closer than that. The researchers found the average number of links from one randomly picked Facebooker to another is 4.74. Within any single nation, most pairs of people are separated by only three degrees.

So does this mean we are all one happy world, and we should break out the guitars and starting singing "Kumbaya"? Not really. Though it's true that "even the most distant Facebook user in the Siberian tundra or the Peruvian rainforest, a friend of your friend probably knows a friend of their friend," as the Facebook post put it, Lars Backstrom and his co-authors also found that most people's connections are quite parochial. Yes, your friends may be linked to one friend of theirs who is linked to that guy in Siberia, but if you're typical, 84 percent of your Facebook friends are in your own nation, the researchers say. Also, your Facebook friends are likely to be overwhelmingly close to you in age, and you're likely to have the same number of friends as your neighbors. Facebook, as the post says, "connects people who are far apart, but also has the dense local structure we see in small communities."

It's the People You May Know section, I think, that reveals the vast difference between the "small community" aspect of Facebook and the "far-apart" side. People I've chosen for Facebook friends mean something to me (though, as John Markoff and Somini Sengupta pointed out today, the definition of "friend" varies, in real life and in the Facebook universe, in ways that affect this kind of study). On the other hand, People I May Know are statistical accidents. They're strangers who happen to have a tie to someone who has a tie to someone whom I might care about. And there are so damn many of them.

You think you see the end of this parade—the scroll-down lozenge at the bottom, that's a wrap!—but no, it refreshes. It always refreshes, so there are always more People You May Know, stretching on and on in their billions. After a while, fun fades and in comes exhaustion—so many people, so many kids and pets and vacations and hobbies. So much human effort and feeling that's important to someone but meaningless to me. Zip through these weakly tied profiles, and social life, the point of Facebook, comes to meaningless.

How interchangeable we are, after all, as we so individually and idiosyncratically pursue, and fear, and celebrate, the exact same things. So many kids, pets, vacations, hobbies, favorite quotes, great meals and lousy weekends. On and on it rolls, click, click, click, like the parade of future kings in Macbeth. Another 200 people I may know? Am I really tied to the whole human race?

I wonder if serial killers think this way—they're all alike, each so caught up in their own importance, to themselves and a few score others, what difference does the loss of one or two of these make? And I can't help feeling, somehow, that this wasn't Facebook's intention.

Facebook wants us to enjoy being connected, and feeling that more connections are easy to make. But seeing so many people who are at once nobody to me and somebody to themselves has the opposite effect. I imagine my own profile in the indifferent eye of that guy in Siberia who knows that guy in Tashkent who is friends with an old college chum. I'm nobody special to him, and from his perspective, he's right. The zone where I am somebody special is so small, and so unremarkable, and so brief. What's the use of all this connecting, then? "People You May Know" ends up being a reminder that I'm not that connected after all, and that there are degrees of separation Facebook can never cure.


That Very Depressing 4.74 D...

Newsletter: Share: