We often hear people say “It’s such a small world; fancy meeting you here!” at the sight of a close friend or acquaintance in the most unlikely of physical or online spaces. Yet in our fast-paced, Internet-driven world “unlikely” is certainly not what it used to be. Today, the crowdsourcing, social media and social networks trio bridges people (acquainted or otherwise) more rapidly and effectively than never before. And so the coincidence-meter rises: with every new online bond “unlikely” grows likelier, contacts are established and the chances of finding a rare specialist or essential resource for one’s innovation project or business become indisputably higher. But how close are we and how do we use this powerful advantage?
The “small-world phenomenon” – or the idea that we are all linked by short chains of acquaintances – is something most of us have probably heard of. It was inaugurated as an area of experimental study in the social sciences through the pioneering work of Stanley Milgram in the 1960's, an area that has fascinated researchers since. The most notable progress came in 2008 when Microsoft’s instant messaging system MSN was put to the test as Jure Leskovec at Carnegie Mellon University and Eric Horvitz at Microsoft Research examined the patterns that emerged from the collective dynamics of large numbers of people. 240 million users and 30 billion conversations to be exact. The result? An average path length of 6.6. The famous six degrees of separation theory was officially confirmed.
Recently the theory was challenged again. Eman Yasser Daraghmi and Shyan-Ming Yuan at the National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan re-evaluated and extend the six degrees of separation concept by experimenting on the Facebook platform. Their complex computations were carried out on a database of 950 million users and avoided fake or duplicate accounts as well as celebrities, whose popularity could skew the results. As it turned out, the average number of acquaintances separating any two people - even those with rare-special features, i.e. those who work in rare jobs, is not six but 3.9. In translation, the chances of finding a wood pattern maker, an astronaut, a doll doctor, a lighthouse keeper or a coconut inspector is (at least in theory) less difficult than one might think. A friend of a friend of a friend likely knows one, can likely introduce them to you and your innovation project.
So now that we can arguably reach anyone and everyone through an average chain of four to six people, how to exploit this advantage? To begin with, fewer degrees of separation can help professional interest groups and associations form faster, often at the stroke of the keyword or push of a button. If the transition from artist guilds and confraternities of workers, to trade unions, cartels, secret societies and exclusive LinkedIn groups has taught us a fundamental lesson, that lesson has been that such spaces are essential contexts for progress and social change to occur in. Hence, the reduced time needed to gather people in dedicated online spaces - like innovation forums – becomes a clear incentive to start exploring. If executed correctly, these setups can be leveraged for technical and non-technical advancements.
Secondly, fewer degrees of separation can likely shorten the path to a special resource or tool (i.e. publications, software, idea banks, prototypes, designs, history of trials etc.). In a “small world” information is obtained more quickly, often from its very source. This in turn encourages collaborative innovation initiatives as progress is made faster. Think crowdsourcing competitions – essentially an Idea Mall - and of all the productive networking and alliance building that occurs in order to meet a solution deadline. Many challenges could not be solved effectively before the big inter-connection. But collaborative innovation comes in many interesting variations - Innovation Communities, Elite Circles and Consortiums, even “smart mobs” - or large groups of individuals connected by technology - working together to find solutions to the planet’s most pressing problems. Each variation bears its advantages in terms of specificities and leverages in a different manner the advantages of shorter chains of people.
Circling back to our starting point, Internet-driven technologies and all their “offshoots” have clearly revolutionized the way we go about our innovation projects and even our lives. As argued above, with fewer degrees of separation comes agility and power, faster forming interest groups, quick information sharing and vital resource clues. What were once coincidences are now consequences of our digital associations and social media ties. And what is best of all? Our progress is in many respects irreversible - in the words of Dougles Coupland, author of the famous novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture: “In the same way you can never go backward to a slower computer, you can never go backward to a lessened state of connectedness.”
So tell me, have crowdsourcing, social media and social networks made “unlikely” likelier for you too?