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. 




2 people have commented on this article so far

Board member 

Summary: A career public diplomacy officer, Brian Carlson advises the InterMedia research organization on military and foreign affairs issues and manages communication strategies for private clients. 


Ambassador Brian E. Carlson, a former Career Minister in the United States Foreign Service, currently assists international media and audience analysis firm InterMedia on defense and diplomatic sector activities. authors name for more info

Author: Brian Carlson

We welcome comments from our readers that advocate and shed light on the subject of public diplomacy. We avoid discussion that is politically partisan, commercial in nature or offensive. To prevent inappropriate comments and spam we screen each comment before publishing it, so please excuse us if you do not see your remark right away.

new media research

Brian makes some great points. But yesterday I was talking with someone who is conducting new media research -- network analysis -- for the State Department. This is a promising field, but we agreed that for that diplomat on the ground, new media research is like a shiny Ferrari. Most diplomats need to reach out more, as Brian suggested, and also to take time analyzing the social landscape using all sources. Get the pickup truck before putting that Ferrari in your garage.

Research: A Luxury for Government, A Necessity for Business

I am struck again and again by the difference between businesses - especially those that depend on their customers' good opinion - and government. Government leaders claim to be interested in communication, but rarely measure or evaluate their success.

Look, for example, at these comments by P&G CEO Robert McDonald: "Our purpose at P&G is to touch and improve lives; everything we do is in that context. With digital technology, it’s now possible to have a one-on-one relationship with every consumer in the world. The more intimate the relationship, the more indispensable it becomes. We want to be the company that creates those indispensable relationships with our brands, and digital technology enables this."

"One way is through consumer feedback. In 1984, when I was the Tide brand manager, I would get a cassette tape of consumer comments from the 1-800 line and listen to them in the car on the way home. Then, back at the office, I’d read and react to the letters we’d received. Today that’s obviously not sufficient—you’ve got blogs, tweets, all kinds of things."

"And so we’ve developed something called “consumer pulse,” which uses Bayesian analysis to scan the universe of comments, categorize them by individual brand, and then put them on the screen of the relevant individual. I personally see the comments about the P&G brand. This allows for real-time reaction to what’s going on in the marketplace, because we know that if something happens in a blog and you don’t react immediately—or, worse, you don’t know about it—it could spin out of control by the time you get involved. The technology also lets us improve things that are working. For example, we’re rolling out a product called Downy Unstopables, a fragrance addition you can add to your wash, and the real-time comments from consumers about the product’s characteristics are helping us figure out how best to join in the discussion through our marketing efforts."

Clearly, McDonald puts a lot of value on knowing what P&G's "audience" thinks.

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