6.5 BILLION people and only 6 degrees of separation?
On the one hand you have population experts sounding warning bells about an ever expanding population worldwide – “6.5 billion people and the world is growing”; on the other hand is an interesting theory known as the six degrees of separation which talks about a shrinking world.
The six degree theory suggests that each person is only 5 relationships away from knowing the sixth human being on this planet. So if you were to pick any random unknown person on earth, you would be connected to that person through a chain of just 5 common acquaintances. This makes the world appear smaller and more connected despite the huge population. Several have tried to prove this theory of social networks; several still consider it an urban myth. This six degree of separation idea is important because it was the basis of the social networking sites that we know today.
Social networking sites mushroomed in the mid 90s. People are spending more and more time online. Today the blackberry toting, net-surfing pod population is busy blogging, Twittering, Flickring (uploading pictures), playing Second Life and networking with others, using the tools of social media. Yet paradoxically, people seem to be feeling more isolated than ever despite the digital closeness.
So, are the social networking sites connecting people or distancing them socially, culturally, and emotionally?
· Social networking sites defy geography. Given the busy lifestyles and the fact that people are scattered across the world, social networking helps people to stay in touch.
· Social networking sites provide ways to extend offline relationships, giving people ways to arrange meetings and events easily. Twestival, an event organized by the Twitter community is just such an example where the online community finds ways of socializing offline.
· Social networking sites provide ways for like-minded people to share ideas and collaborate, making them feel more connected.
· People with disabilities who find it difficult to go out and meet people, feel more connected using these sites.
· The older generation is also finding ways to stay connected with grandchildren and other family members scattered through the world.
· Social media is proving to be useful in education. Recently Imperial College in London is experimenting with using Second Life (the virtual 3D world) to help medical students learn how to treat patients.
· Politicians are using social media. Campaigns are no longer local but are becoming international. Social media is connecting global communities of people.
· Social media is here to stay. With the web becoming mobile, people are going to embrace social media even while on the move. Technology is only as good as the people using it. If used properly, social media can help bridge distances between people. Social networking has the power to make you feel connected to every sixth person in the world!
· Social networking sites are addictive. While many people use it to extend their friendship, others simply use it as a replacement for real world friendships.
· A social media user may have over 1000 friends but the ties with all 1000 are unlikely to be strong.
· Online relationships do not require the same interpersonal skills needed in the real world. Social skills such as tact, sensitivity, empathy, and anger management are getting lost online. In the real world, people do not just walk up to you and ask to be your friend – they have to earn the right. Online however, relationships can be made or broken with a click of the mouse. This possibly increases the feeling of disconnection.
· A Facebook poke is no replacement for a real world hug.
· There is no divide between what is private and what is public. Online public suicides, voyeurism, and other intimate details revealed through micro blogging are not an indication of “connecting” with people.
· Second Life is a free virtual world where users can socialize and connect. This virtual world has a population of 100,000. Each person (known as a resident) controls a three dimensional puppet known as an avatar. The avatar often reflects the personality of the user. The avatar can be programmed to display a range of human emotions and indulge in virtual activities like dancing, partying, and shopping. They can create and trade virtual property. Users interact and socialize with each other in the virtual world through these avatars. How can sitting alone in front of the computer be a real interaction or connection with people?
· The virtual world is no longer a static page. It is a 3-dimensional space made to resemble the real world. Addiction to this virtual world is disconnecting people from having real and more meaningful relationships. It is also disconnecting the users themselves from reality.
· People spend endless hours reading trivia about others in the virtual world. This takes away time that could be used to socialize in the real world.
· The person you “think” you are connecting with is possibly “hiding” behind an adopted online persona.
· British scientists are indicating that social networking sites have a negative impact on the social skills of children.
· People in office are using office hours for social networking sometimes at the cost of not interacting with their office mates. A common scenario in an office meeting is that people are checking out their Facebook accounts or sending and receiving Tweets. This may be coming at the cost of actually participating in the meeting, listening to others, and being involved in meaningful dialogues. This could only serve to alienate people and hurting team spirit.
· The online community is furthering a digital divide between those that have access to internet and are members of social networks and those that do not have access to the internet or don’t use it effectively. The digital divide exists between countries. It can also exist within a country. Social networking was used extensively by the Obama campaign. In such political campaigns, Facebook and MySpace became part of a participatory culture. Those who do not have access to internet are getting marginalized and isolated. Imagine the digital divide that already exists within India. Providing net access to India’s 1 billion is still a distant dream. So the divide will continue to exist.
· The Pope has warned people against extensive use of social networking as it could marginalize a lot of people worldwide.
Seldom has technology been received with open arms at the very onset. Television, the internet and every other innovation has had to deal with criticism to begin with. Social media is no different. In this case, the criticism is not entirely unfounded. Social media maybe reducing the degrees of separation but it is also reducing the quality and depth of the links that people have, thus leading to a sense of increasing isolation. But, like other innovative ideas, social networking is here to stay. People of all age groups and all walks of life are going to increasingly warm up to the idea. Its judicious use can only be left to the individual’s discretion.
· The Rise of the Social Nervous System
· Social Media Cuts Six Degrees of Separation to Three
· Proof! Just six degrees of separation between us