Last week, Facebook came out with the news that the old six degrees of separation theory is obsolete for participants in the world’s largest social network.
In what Facebook touted as two of the “largest social network studies ever released,” research teams at Cornell University and the University of Milan found that 92 percent of Facebook users are linked by four intermediate friends, and calculated the average “degrees of separation” to be 4.74.
On one level, it can’t be a bad thing that 721 million active Facebook users have 69 billion friends. Years ago, I covered a conference that brought together three different organizations with a very urgent common issue but very little common ground. When the closing speaker urged everyone to “err on the side of having too many friends and not enough enemies,” he evoked a world where we should all want to live.
But social networks won’t create that world unassisted, and that’s why this story matters to meetings and events.
Start with the whole concept of “friends,” Facebook style. “Facebook ‘friends’ are to real friends as naugahyde is to leather,” said one person who commented on the story at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. News Web site. The Cornell and Milan researchers don’t seem to have addressed the definitional drift of lumping close contacts and distant acquaintances together as Facebook “friends”—unlike Google+, which allows users to differentiate friends, family, acquaintances, and other categories of contacts. (That make sense, because the original “six degrees of separation” theory never assumed the contacts connecting us were anything other than distant acquaintances either.)
The superficiality of many Facebook “friendships” is matched by the superficiality of the content they share. It’s nice to know details of an acquaintance’s Thanksgiving dinner or weekend shopping binge, to a point. But don’t confuse that casual patter with the more in-depth, sometimes intense conversations that build real connections and change our minds, our work, or our lives.
The biggest problem with the patter is the overwhelming volume, which drowns out material we need to see. This is where 4.74 degrees of separation is good news and bad: It’s great if it brings us crucial information or insight we would otherwise have missed, but not so great if that nugget gets lost in the mix. The volume of online information is doubling every two years—it’s now being measured in zettabytes—but the number of hours in the day remains unchanged.
A well-designed meeting can help participants interact meaningfully and find unexpected connections between disparate pieces of knowledge, data, or experience. And the dynamic of being on site creates its own intensity, forcing a serious participant to make good use of the available time.
But it would be a big stretch to say that every meeting fits that description, or that every meeting professional would like it to. If we see our meetings purely as entertainment, or ourselves as only coffee cup counters, we lose a sense of purpose that becomes even more important as Facebook brings more and more people into an ever-tightening circle.
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog and tweets as @mitchellbeer.