January 15, 2008
Paradox and degrees of separation
My friend P called me up the other day and asked whether I knew of anyone who could program Paradox, which is a database program for personal computers that was released in the 1980s. If this doesn't mean anything to you, you can think of it as perhaps the PC software equivalent to asking your friends if they just happen to have a repair manual for an AMC Hornet, or an LP of the Cowsills.
Friend P doesn't know Paradox, so he called me. I don't know the product either, but I did offer to help find someone. I forwarded Friend P's inquiry to about a dozen people who I thought might either have PC history that goes that far back or who know databases. About two hours later someone replied who had indeed worked with Paradox long ago, and I hooked him up with Friend P.
Frankly, I was not entirely surprised. Naturally, I was not surprised when most of the people I contacted responded with "Nope, not me!" (altho people did remember the software, so I knew my selection of recipients was not too far off). But I was also not that surprised that someone I kind of know proved to be the right contact.
The famous "six degrees of separation" comes from an experiment that was done in the late 1960s in which the experimenter asked people to get a packet to a person in a distant city. The idea was that you could hand the letter to someone who might know someone who ... and so on. There were some surprises that came out of the experiment; the most well-known was how short the chain was from the original sender to the recipient. Nowadays -- and very much as a result of this experiment -- we kind of understand this, but before this trial, people thought that it would take many, many more people to connect you to some remote stranger. As it turned out, on average it took between 5 and 6 intermediaries to reach the ultimate recipient.
Thus the power of social networks. What my recent experience underscored, however, was that a lot of the power of social networks comes via the "weak ties" between people. Malcolm Gladwell (from whom I crib most of this info) recounts a study that looked at how social networks work when you're looking for a job:
[A]lmost fifty-six per cent of those he talked to had found their jobs through a personal connection [...] This much is not surprising: the best way to get in the door is through a personal contact. But the majority of those personal connections did not involve close friends. They were what he called "weak ties." Of those who used a contact to find a job, for example, only 16.7 per cent saw that contact "often," as they would have if the contact had been a good friend; 55.6 per cent saw their contact only "occasionally"; and 27.8 per cent saw the contact "rarely." People were getting their jobs not through their friends but through acquaintances.In some senses, the weakness of the tie is actually a critical factor in leveraging a social network:
[W]hen it comes to finding out about new jobs -- or, for that matter, gaining new information, or looking for new ideas -- weak ties tend to be more important than strong ties. Your friends, after all, occupy the same world that you do. They work with you, or live near you, and go to the same churches, schools, or parties. How much, then, do they know that you don't know? Mere acquaintances, on the other hand, are much more likely to know something that you don't.When Friend P contacted me, he had already inquired without success among people in his immediate work circle, so he threw a line over to my network. When I got his request, I didn't just ask the people who have offices on either side of me; I sent his request to people I worked with years or even decades ago, or in some cases, to people I have never even met in person. My acquaintance with some of the people on the list is pretty slim ("we worked together once" or "a guy whose blog I read") -- some of those ties are pretty dang weak. But it worked, and as I say, I wasn't hugely surprised.
Think about this with respect to Facebook, say, or Linked in (whose slogan is "Relationships matter"). If all you ever wanted to do was talk to your immediate social circle or consult with your professional colleagues down the hall, there would be no need for a social-networking site. The premise of these sites is not that my bestest buddy can contact me, but that the network can capture people to whom I have weak ties. The sites expose chains of mutual acquaintance that result in friends (well, "friends") and professional contacts. (See also this great video explanation of social networks.)
There's lots more to social networks (another interesting outcome of the original study was in identifying "hub people"), but situation after situation reinforces the idea that we're just a few contacts away from a lot of other people. Next time you're looking for a job (or a date), let your social network, and the network it belongs to, help you out.