Six Degrees of Separation: Now 4.7 Degrees of Proximity
Tuesday, November 29th 2011
Social media is a lot like the weather: everyone talks about it, but very few are doing anything about it.
The news that social science researchers have determined that the distance between friends seems to be shrinking in the digital age came as no surprise to millions of Facebook users. And it did not come as news to public diplomacy practitioners.
The old rule was that there are "six degrees of separation" between any two people on Earth. Thus, any two people would know each other through no more than six intermediary contacts.
On Facebook, however, the average user is only 4.74 degrees away from any other Facebook user, according to a study released by Facebook in collaboration with the Università degli Studi di Milano.
Facebook and the scientists call this analysis "the largest social network study ever released." Indeed, the numbers in this research are stunning: they studied an active user network of around 721 million users with 69 billion friendship links.
Data – especially in such large quantity – makes it possible to see patterns and discern relationships.
As British scientist and InterMedia colleague Ali Fisher pointed out in the Wandren PD blog recently, these findings have implications for public diplomacy.
Public diplomacy is, after all, about relationships.
Social media gives us new ways to perceive and map relationships. Many diplomats have had the experience of getting to know a valuable contact for one reason, and then discovering that person also has a strong interest in another issue of importance to us. Suddenly, there are more avenues on which to communicate. Our relationship has become deeper, more complex, and more productive.
The better you perceive and understand the network of relationships, the better you can plan a public diplomacy strategy.
When people ask me what is public diplomacy, I often reply that public diplomacy is ultimately the art of being a good and honest broker among people. (I’ve been in a lot of embassies, and not one of them had an assembly line in the basement that produced any product. Diplomacy is about people, not products.) The public diplomacy officer can do this broker job well only if she or he has a sophisticated understanding of the attitudes, values, interests, and perceptions of both sides.
Public diplomacy really means reaching out to and connecting the right people from American society with the right people from the host nation society.
It is possible, through new media research, to identify so-called “clusters” and “influentials” within a network. Understanding what and how individuals communicate within these clusters allows public diplomacy strategists to identify whom they wish to address and what types of content might meet their interests. As Ali Fisher writes, the issue is not merely whether or not two individuals are closely connected, but whether information flows freely between them and whether either individual can use it.
Social media is interesting as a means of communication.
But, social media's real value -- and the reason to understand, to measure it, and to map it -- is because it enables the public diplomacy officer to understand those all important relationship networks.