Four Degrees of Facebook?

Posted November 23rd, 2011 at 5:22 pm (UTC-4)
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And the Campaign Against “Breaking The Internet”

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

Periodically we like to share a few of the stories and posts from across the web that caught our eye.  There are no editorial threads implied connecting these items together, other than being interesting.

#1: What’s With The “Weirdness” from China? There’s been a tremendous amount of web news coming from China lately. Perhaps the most eye-grabbing headlines have been regarding the online campaign to defend artist Ai Weiwei against possible charges of pornography. What to do when your favorite artist is investigated by the government for earlier nude photography he released? Release your own nude photography. Ai Weiwei’s supporters have flooded the web with unclothed pictures: some of them as infants, some with discreet obscuring images, and some just unclothed. So far, the artist has not been charged with any offense.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (AP)

However, submerged by the nude photos story are disturbing reports that some Chinese ISPs might be testing out new tools to shut off encrypted communications. Forbes’ Andy Greenberg has this item about curious data traffic coming from computers in China attempting to access encrypted “web tunnels” such as Tor, Freegate or UltraSurf; all commonly used by individuals to cloak their online activities:

“In recent months, administrators of services with encrypted connections designed to allow users secure remote access say they’ve seen strange activity coming from China: when a user from within the country attempts to reach a server abroad, a string of seemingly random data hits the destination computer before he or she can connect, sometimes followed by that user’s communication being mysteriously dropped.”

“We see weird things all the time,” Tor’s Andrew Lewman tells Greenberg. “But this is a semi-consistent weird thing, and it’s only coming from China.”  It is unclear if Chinese ISPs, or the government for that matter, are trying to probe encryption differences between traffic like that of financial transactions, and private networks like Tor.  What is certain is that developers at Tor and elsewhere are aware of this “weird thing” and are already responding. Full disclosure: VOA’s parent agency, the International Broadcasting Bureau, has working relationships with Tor and Freegate, among other encryption services.

#2: “Don’t Break the Internet” Members of the U.S. Congress are currently discussing several pieces of legislation that could significantly alter the web landscape in the United States, and potentially around the globe.

The two bills – the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (or SOPA) in the House, and the “Protect IP Act” in the Senate – both target copyright violators (i.e., “pirates”) in other nations by giving the U.S. government greater control over shutting down web access and traffic to specific cites, among other tools. Proponents such as the Chamber of Commerce and the Motion Picture Association of America argue online pirates cost copyright holders billions of dollars each year, and that the bills’ provisions are balanced by protections for ISPs and website owners.

But that hasn’t stopped the swelling ranks of critics from arguing, with some effect, that media monopolies are trying to “break the Internet.” Groups advocating greater online freedoms, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Creative Commons, the Free Software Alliance and others were first in line calling for the bills’ defeat. Then came heavy-hitter Internet service companies like Google, Zynga, LinkedIn, Mozilla and more.  Now, this week, the influential Business Software Alliance, which represents giants such as Dell, Microsoft and Apple, has also weighed in opposing the measure.

As policy fights go, this one is a long way from over. Action on the bills isn’t expected until 2012, giving supporters and opponents plenty of time to build momentum and lobby members of Congress. We’ll detail the issues involved in the near future. In the meantime, Washington Post tech columnist Cecilia Kang offers “Five Things to Know About SOPA,” which provides a concise overview.

#3: Four Degrees of Facebook? In his 1929 fiction collection “Everything is Different,” Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy set two characters to wondering about our increasingly urbanized planet. The world was “shrinking” they said; people were getting closer not just physically but socially:

“One of us suggested performing the following experiment to prove that the population of the Earth is closer together now than they have ever been before. We should select any person from the 1.5 billion inhabitants of the Earth—anyone, anywhere at all. He bet us that, using no more than five individuals, one of whom is a personal acquaintance, he could contact the selected individual using nothing except the network of personal acquaintances.”

Thus was born “six degrees of separation” – the idea that any human is only six social connections away from any other human. For decades researchers like Stanley Milgram explored this idea and, despite its unlikeliness, found there’s actually considerable merit to Karthiny’s game. Despite obvious problems like isolated populations, it’s become something of a maxim among social scientists that as people’s social networks have grown, so have the connections between us. So, in fact, your humble author may in fact only be five or six hops from everyone reading this.

Or, would you believe, four? Researchers at the University of Milan, working with Facebook researchers, have been exploring the “six degrees” idea as well, and this week published new findings suggesting six may be too many:

“We found that six degrees actually overstates the number of links between typical pairs of users: While 99.6% of all pairs of users are connected by paths with 5 degrees (6 hops), 92% are connected by only four degrees (5 hops). And as Facebook has grown over the years, representing an ever larger fraction of the global population, it has become steadily more connected. The average distance in 2008 was 5.28 hops, while now it is 4.74.”

Shockingly, those numbers are even smaller for same-country pairs; for example, any two U.S. Facebook users are only about 3 or so degrees from each other. Meaning that every one of Facebook’s 700+ million users, with a very high statistical likelihood, is only a small number of social connections away from everyone else. Small world, indeed.


Postscript: “Everything is Different” is long out of print, and a web search suggests that English translations of this book are simply lost.

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