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Swapping IMs in Milgram’s Ever-Shrinking Small World

Written by: Bill Sherman on Friday, 8 August 2008, 3:07 PM

Here’s an interesting question. Let’s say you use an instant messanger at least once-a-month. How far are you removed from any other person who sent an IM across the network that month?

Leskovec and Horvitz, two researchers at Microsoft, conducted a planetary-wide study of MSN Messenger traffic for a single month (over 180 million users). They created a social graph of everyone who sent at least one message during the month. They found that the average IM “chatter” was 6.6 connections away from the furthest person in their network.

This study isn’t quite a replication study of Stanley Milgram‘s famous “small world” study, but presents a modern-age twist. When Milgram sent letters to Omaha, he gave the recipients a target person in Boston and asked people to “forward it to someone in your network who you can get this closer to the target person”. Milgram allowed people to use their full network.

I learned about this research through Thomas Sander, Executive Director at Harvard’s Saguaro Seminar (part of the Kennedy School of Government). He blogs on locally-based social capital–the Social Capital blog. If you have an interest in social capital, then i encourage you to add his blog to your “must read” list. He’s a lively, thoughtful, and engaging writer.

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