Be your own Net

A study released by Cornell University and published in Nature last week promises to hold the key to life, the Internet, and Kevin Bacon. I do so love it when the universe tidies itself up like that.

The study takes that "six degrees of separation" meme one step further (would that make it seven degrees? oh, brother, another aside—I see we're in for one of those columns), explaining how it is that any particular human is separated from the acquaintance of any other human by no more than six people. (In case you've ever wondered about that six-degrees thing, by the way, it came from a study done by Harvard social psychologists in 1960, who found themselves in Omaha, Nebraska, and asked a number of randomly chosen residents to deliver letters to folks in Massachusetts by passing them from person to person. History does not record whether these were letters pleading for help escaping Omaha, but in any case the researchers found that the average letter took about six hops to get where it was going.)

Now, where was I? (Oh, god, Omaha!) Anyway, the Cornell researchers, who despite any vicious rumors you may have heard were not attempting to justify to their department chair the amount of time they spent goofing around on IMDb playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, created a mathematical model of how that six-degrees thing works. It turns out that human beings have an "inverse square" relationship with other folks—you tend to know more people close to you (geographically, professionally, or whatever) than you do people a bit less close or similar, and fewer still of people more different, and so on.

Attentive geeks will recognize this as how the Net does its thing: My own computer "knows" how to find its ISP, which "knows" various other computers upstream, and so the packets pass. The example researcher Jon Kleinberg gives is social: "A mathematician who wants to send a message to a politician might start by handing it to a lawyer."

I'm fascinated by this study not just because I used to play a mean game of Bacon, but because it sheds some light on one of those long-running debates we seem to have about the Net, which is whether it destroys community, or builds community, or is a community, or what exactly the fool thing does to those collections of human beings we call communities. The question usually gets raised by people wailing about so-called "Net addiction," which as near as I can tell is an amount of Net use somewhere between "can't function with people who don't manifest as a series of ones and zeroes" and "enough to piss off my significant other, who happens to be just the kind of person to blame everything but his/her own personality for the rest of us wanting to hide in the den when s/he comes home." Needless to say these are not the kind of people likely to look rationally at how the Net does—or doesn't—connect us.

Without invoking the old ghosts of debate about how the Net helps or harms or doesn't affect community gatherings, without pitting the ex-spouses who lost their husbands and wives to online affairs against lonely folk in isolated places who found companionship digitally that wasn't available in the physical world—without beating each other over the heads with anecdotes because we haven't enough facts— let us ask ourselves if the quality of life we lead online is better at keeping us not only in touch with those far away but in contact with those nearby, geographically or otherwise. Let's ask if the Net makes for a more perfect, more effective, more humane inverse square.

Now that it turns out that human relations really do behave like the Internet, let's finally lay to rest the Luddite debate over whether the Net helps or harms human interaction. It's just another method for them to connect—one that we see now is not so alien after all.

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