Six Degrees

[Originally published in the Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent newspaper.]

Everything – and everyone – is related. We’ve always known that. Philosophical treatises on the unity of, well, everything have been around for about as long as humanity has been able to chew on a stalk of grass and contemplate the world.

The only real difference between our understanding of this inter-relatedness past and present is that we moderns have scientifically developed models to lean on. One of the most easily grasped is Six Degrees of Separation. Put simply, this concept states that the vast majority of people in the world are related to one another through no more than six other individuals. A fun way to demonstrate this concept is the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, which shows that virtually every movie star working in Hollywood today has worked with someone who’s worked with someone (etc. etc.) who’s worked with Kevin Bacon.

Once you start to think about it, the only interesting part of this theory is the number – we’ve always known we were all connected, at least in some esoteric sense. But until recently we’d never been able to properly quantify that relationship.

Now that the numbers are well known, so-called social networking services such as FaceBook, MySpace and countless other sites that trade on the common tastes of ‘friends of friends’ have capitalised on that to provide services over the Internet.

Some of them are genuinely interesting. A lot of Internet radio stations, for example, are able to structure their playlist to your individual taste. They do it by performing statistical analysis on people who listen to similar music, the presenting you with welcome – and often surprising – listening selections.

Amazon has done a lot with this concept, helping people choose new reading materials. In spite of the odd rather bizarre suggestion (suggesting that someone who read Barack Obama’s biographies might also like Mein Kampf), they’re generally able to introduce people to book choices that they might not otherwise have made.

There’s another ‘inter-relatedness’ concept that’s quite relevant in this hyper-connected age. Known as the ‘Butterfly Effect’, it posits that the tiny air disturbance caused by a butterfly flapping its wings in China could result in a hurricane forming over Port Vila. Tiny actions, in other words, can have significant repercussions in very complex systems.

Unfortunately for many of us, the Butterfly Effect is not so well understood, especially where social networks are concerned. Countless millions of people have embraced their newfound ability to connect with the world through social networking services, but only a tiny minority realise the implications of their actions on these networks.

It comes down to this: If they appear online, those tiny little moments of foolishness that we all experience can be amplified, stored and reproduced on demand for a global audience. Perhaps the most egregious example that comes to mind is that of a young woman who posted to FaceBook, in graphic detail, her appreciation for the ‘strong and powerful’ male attention she had received the night before.

While her friends were quick to let her know that the whole world was watching, the Internet can be unforgiving. Gleeful spectators posted screen shots of her post to other sites, ensuring that her naiveté will remain on display for years to come.

One might think that the lesson to be taken from this experience is, ‘don’t say private things in public places’. That’s true, as far as it goes, but there’s another aspect to this that many people haven’t properly considered: What about the actions of others?

Let’s pretend you go to a costume party and get a little carried away in your consumption of refreshments. Someone pulls out their camera phone and starts snapping you and your equally… er, enthusiastic friends striking goofy poses, hoisting your drinks triumphantly and leering at the camera. It’s all in good fun, and nobody there objects. But then….

But then, days later, your friend posts these photos on FaceBook so that those who couldn’t attend would know what fun they’d missed. They use FaceBook’s ‘tagging’ feature to identify everyone in each photo. Everybody has a chuckle and thinks nothing of it.

Until…. Until one day, your employer calls you into the office and, pointing to these same photos, accuses you of degrading the organisation’s good reputation. You’re fired, all because of someone else’s lack of discretion.

Sound improbable? Think again. This is exactly what happened to an elementary school teacher in the US some months ago.

Now, these are just the visible effects. The amount of information being gathered by marketing companies, credit agencies and countless other state- and privately-owned organisations is truly incomprehensible to most. It’s becoming commonplace now for prospective employers to conduct credit and criminal background checks on applicants. Suppose you had a few foolish years in your youth that wreaked havoc on your credit rating. Suppose you were a bystander at a party that got out of hand and were arrested along with the actual trouble-makers. There is an ever-increasing chance that you won’t get called for an interview, regardless of how qualified you might be, or how you might have changed in the intervening years.

In the past, it was always possible to pick up stakes and make a fresh start, but now the Internet follows us everywhere. This column is a case in point; two young women’s moments of naive foolishness are recorded here for posterity. Without the power of people to spread their ridicule instantly across the globe, you might never have been offered these object lessons.

Of course, you might never have needed them, too.

Vanuatu is a unique society in many respects, and one of those is the constant, open scrutiny that everyone is exposed to. We all know that our weekend exploits are going to be recounted around town (and if the Dobber gets wind of it, possibly publicised, too). It’s not at all unusual to meet someone whom you haven’t seen in weeks, and be asked why you were talking to so-and-so yesterday.

We also know that living in a small town involves a good deal of tolerance. Personal foibles and momentary lapses provide good fodder for gossip, but unless you’ve done something really astoundingly hurtful or dangerous, nobody’s likely to keep a tally of your mistakes – or hold them against you, even if they do.

FaceBook and its social networking counterparts, with their hundreds of millions of members, are essentially one really (really) big village. Not everyone is so friendly and forgiving.

Here’s a simple and very conservative thought experiment: Let’s say you have twenty FaceBook friends. Let’s say that each of them has twenty friends, and so on. Your immediate circle of friends is quite small. But the next circle consists of 400 people. The third circle is 8,000 large. The next one again numbers 160,000. And that’s only four degrees of separation.

The next time you’re tempted to post a silly comment or an angry tirade to a social networking site, consider how you want to be remembered, for years to come, by a few hundred thousand of your closest friends.

Those butterfly wings are looking pretty powerful now, aren’t they?