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How Meeting People Online Becomes Science with Social Networks

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Every day, we rely on others to do specialized tasks that we can't do ourselves: sales reps, service providers and lawyers, doctors, childcare providers, and contractors. We use phones, email, and word of mouth to communicate recommendations and referrals in hopes of finding the right person to solve our need. Sooner or later, we all need to tap into our people network to find friends to help us get by. Cyndy Bates Finnie discusses how the art of meeting people online becomes science with new sites and technology offerings.
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It's not what you know—it's who you know, or so the saying goes. What we know can get us very far in the world, but sooner or later, we all have to accomplish something that we don't have the skills to do ourselves. Whether it's at work, at home or at play, eventually there's a task or chore that we need someone to do for us. It can be anything from finding a Flash programmer/designer to unloading sheets of plywood from the minivan.

Every day, we rely on others to do specialized tasks that we can't do for ourselves: sales reps, service providers and lawyers, doctors, childcare providers, and contractors. We use phones, email, and word of mouth to communicate recommendations and referrals in hopes of finding the right person to solve our need. Sooner or later, we all need to tap into our people network to find friends to help us get by.

Six Degrees

Social networks are based on the work of Stanley Milgrim. In 1967, he sent packages to randomly selected people in Omaha, Nebraska—asking them each to mail the package back to stockbroker in Boston. They were asked to pass it along to someone they thought was better able to find the target. Milgrim (who also pioneered the study of authority that led test subjects to believe they were shocking another human with a fatal level of electricity) found that on average only six acquaintances were needed for the package to find its target. Hence, the six degrees of separation commonly understood as the number of people between us and an unknown acquaintance. (This was also popularized as the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon: a game in which contestants try to connect Kevin Bacon to another actor by listing the movies they have in common.)

In 1998, researchers at Columbia University attempted to re-create Milgrim's findings online by asking people to forward an email to someone more likely to be an acquaintance of the target. The average chain was completed with an average of six hops (five if the source and target person were in the same country). But only 384 of the more than 24,000 chains were completed. The researchers' small-world hypothesis held up in the digital age, but only when the source believed in the strength of his network and was motivated to proceed. There are many venues to network and build networks, but the sources in Columbia's study needed to believe in the probability of success to complete their action in the chain. In other words, just building it doesn't mean they will come. Several online social networks have already discovered that to their chagrin, and have gone out of business—but many still remain.

TIP

Check out this social networking site listing: http://socialsoftware.weblogsinc.com/entry/2127913924623224/.

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