Degrees of separation

Social networking, as a phenomenon of the Internet, seemed to arrive out of nowhere and immediately exist everywhere. It was a few years ago when everybody at work (especially those under age 30) suddenly seemed to be designing MySpace pages, making “cool friends,” sharing photo diaries of their lives and loves on the Web. Students in my writing class seemed all of a sudden obsessed with the freedom they felt in communicating on various online networks like Facebook and Friendster. My spouse even got into the act, using a MySpace page to transmit songs-to-learn to members of his far-flung rock band.

But this thing didn’t happen overnight. In fact, the growth of social networks online happened by degrees. Six of them.

By now everybody’s heard about degrees of separation, i.e., the “small world phenomenon” that states, more or less, that a chain of social acquaintances necessary to connect any one person to another is strangely short and, often, a chain of six. Obviously, the Internet is a perfect medium for helping people create such chains.

Now a litany of complaints can be made about such networks, i.e., why talk to people on computers when talking to people in real life is so much better? Some believe social networking online is ultimately phony, that the “cool friends” you make on MySpace (including the ubiquitous starter friend “Tom”) are just for show, nothing at all like real flesh and blood friends. Well, yeah, but that kind of misses the point. As the author of this week’s cover story “Anti-social networking revolution” writes, social networking is just “the natural progression of the promise of the Internet to connect everyone in a World Wide Web … and it’s an unstoppable juggernaut.”

For certain, a backlash is destined to come after any sweeping social movement and, in this case, it’s been dubbed “anti-social networking.” As our cover story details, an experiment soon will be launched to get people to “disengage in places where one maybe wouldn’t,” i.e., try to experience the world as an individual, not a group.

Ultimately, though, the juggernaut advances. No matter to what degree, separation is only an invitation to future connection.