According to some interesting research out of Facebook the degrees of separation between different nodes in the social network is decreasing. In but a few decades, if these numbers are right, we have gone from 6 degrees of separation to somewhat more than 4. Now, the interesting question is if this is a good thing or not. Are lower degrees of separation (or let’s call it sloppily higher social density) a good thing or not?
Obviously, making the case that it is good seems easy. We could argue that a more connected world will be more peaceful, that knowledge will be shared more easily and that we will all be able to understand each-other better. But that seems to imply that the lower the number, the better. This seems obviously untrue, though, right? Imagine a world in which everyone is connected to everyone else. That would be the same as not being connected to anyone since any interaction is still limited by basic human nature.
So here is a question: what would be the optimal social density for a general purpose online network? There are a number of different possible answers to that question.
- Any density that follows from the total number of nodes in the network and a first set of connections that do not violate the Dunbar number. You could imagine that social networks are most useful when you can use and connect with all of your contacts in a natural way.
- Any density that follows from the scarcity of attention. I.e. you could imagine a social network as an attention consumption device, and the density should be determined by the attention you are willing to invest in it, with a ceiling value of your total attention overall.
It is also possible to argue that the overall number is without interest, and that what we should focus on is the number of hops within cliques. What happens with nations, companies and other clique like networks over time? Do we see the same reduction in the number of hops there?