Email to test

carey carey@tstonramp.com
Thu, 24 Jan 2002 16:13:11 -0800


And because the Newscientist website remailer sucks, here is the article

The World's No.1 Science & Technology News Service



Email to test "six degrees of separation"


19:00 23 January 02
Robert Matthews


An unexpected e-mail from a US university over the coming months may not be
spam - it could be from scientists investigating a fascinating social
phenomenon.

According to urban folklore, everyone in the world knows everyone else via
just a few intermediaries - an effect summed up by the phrase "six degrees
of separation".

The number six emerged from an experiment performed in 1967 by the social
psychologist Stanley Milgram, who sent packages to several hundred randomly
selected people in America's Midwest, with the aim of getting them delivered
to target people in Boston.

Each recipient was given some details about the target, such as their name
and profession, and was asked to send the package to a personal acquaintance
whom they believed was more likely to know the target personally. Milgram
discovered that on average the packages reached their targets after passing
through astonishingly short chains, typically comprising just six people.


Small world


In 1998, mathematicians Duncan Watts and Steven Strogatz at Cornell
University showed that Milgram's finding can be explained by the "small
world effect", in which just a handful of people with very diverse friends
can "short circuit" otherwise huge networks of acquaintances.

But attempts to replicate Milgram's findings have had mixed results - and in
any case, the original experiment fell far short of proving that the "six
degrees" effect holds true for the whole world. So a team at Columbia
University is now using the internet to attempt a global version.

Instead of a postal package, they are inviting people to use their network
of acquaintances to get an e-mail message to targets spread across the
world. According to Watts, who devised the experiment, e-mail is ideal for
testing Milgram's claim as there are well over 100 million e-mail users
worldwide.

Only e-mails between genuine acquaintances will be deemed to complete a
chain. People will not be allowed to short-circuit the sequence by just
looking up the target's e-mail address.


Chain mail


Watts has set up a website giving details about how to take part, and how to
volunteer to act as a target. "Ideally, we'd like to have, say, 100,000
people, each trying to reach around 20 targets," he says.

The team is keen to have as many people take part as possible, not least
because they suspect people's mistrust of unsolicited e-mail might otherwise
scupper their experiment.

Early tests show that barely one in four e-mails are being passed on. With
such a high rate of attrition, many thousands of people would have to take
part to give much chance of even one chain of acquaintances reaching the
target if Milgram's six degrees apply worldwide.

"Perhaps people can't be bothered to pass them on - or perhaps Milgram was
just wrong," says Watts. "Either way, we need lots of people to take part so
we can tell."


19:00 23 January 02



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