Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Six Degrees Makes for a Small World

Did anyone see the documentary, How Kevin Bacon Cured Cancer, on the ABC on Tuesday night? In a case of serendipity it examined an idea that was explored in Clay Shirky's book, Here Comes Everybody, that I was about to blog here. I highly recommend it and if you missed it you can still catch up with it on the ABC web site.

This documentary was about a relatively new field of science called network theory. It used the Six Degrees of Separation game, the idea that any two people in the world can be connected within six steps, as a way to explain Small World Networks. How come I know someone, who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows anyone in the world?

The answer goes something like this:
In any social group most people know all the other people in the group because the group shares something in common and there are many such groups. Most people can be considered to be part of several of these small groups - your workmates, friends, family, and so on. There are some people, however, who are part of many more of these groups than the average person. These highly connected individuals form the connections that create the small world phenomenon. While you may not be highly connected there is a good chance that you know someone who is - that is that you know someone, who knows someone. So when you meet someone new and after a brief conversation you realise that you both have a common friend you say, 'it's a small world, isn't it'. These highly connected nodes in the network are called hubs and they are the key for linking disparate nodes. This is essentially how Myspace and Facebook work.

Shirky devotes a whole chapter to small world networks and how social networking tools make use of these small worlds to bring people together. As I was reading this chapter I started wondering whether libraries could capitalise on these highly connected social hubs and convert them into library champions. How do we identify the people in our community that are part of many smaller social groups and get our message to them in the hope that they will pass it on? Indeed, can libraries become these highly connected social hubs for our communities? Surely we are in a position to bring together disparate groups - to make the library a place Does this have any implications for how we might engage in online social networks.

I don't have answers to these questions but I'll bet some of you have suggestions. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

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