One degree of connection
In conversation with some colleagues a few years ago I claimed that I was one degree of separation away from both U.S. President George W. Bush and UK Premier Tony Blair. But it was true. I knew people personally, who worked with each of them. I'm not sure whether I should carry on claiming this, what with the ignominy both ex-heads of state have since been assigned. But the point is this: We are all closer to everyone else in the world than we ever were. Back in the 1960s when psychologist Stanley Milgram did his famous experiments to establish that everyone in the world was no more than 6 degrees of separation from everyone else (6.6 as it turned out), there were no social networks, no internet, and a cumbersome analogue fixed line telephone system which most of the world was excluded from. Technology, and in particular, popular social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Bebo and Orkut have made connections between people much easier, more immediate, and certainly a lot richer in terms of experience. But people are still separated by weak social ties ... friends of friends of friends ... the 6 degrees of separation Milgram proposed. It's probably a good thing.
The popular game where you had to link famous movie stars in 6 moves to the actor Kevin Bacon has sparked off all sorts of artefacts including board games, plays and the inevitable Hollywood movie. But the ease of social connectivity of 7 billion people on this planet has taken on a whole new resonance through recent media-hyped swineflu pandemic warnings. Just how close are we to each other, and how viral are the connections we make between ourselves and others?
A recent article in the journal Technology, Pedagogy and Education - written by my friend and IFIP colleague Thomas Ryberg with Ellen Christiansen - got me thinking about this again, but this time in terms of pedagogy. Ryberg and Christiansen report on their use of a Danish social networking site called Mingler, and how they have used it to promote both vertical learning (accrual of knowledge) and horizontal learning (the transfer of knowledge across communities and contexts). They point to the social fabric of SNs (norms, language, sociability, tolerance, support) as vital ingredients to successful learning of this kind. These are very powerful ideas, and my interest is now piqued enough to go off and do some of my own research.
My own opinion is that Facebook, MySpace and their ilk have certainly facilitated greater social connectivity and reduced the level of separation between like minded people by aiding the formation of transient self-organised communities of interest. However, many of the connections are weak or relate to people we have never met, and have no real interest in. Twitter works on an entirely different level to that. The connections made on the microblogging tool are more direct, immediate, and can connect anyone to anyone else. I have had tweeted conversations with many people over that last 18 months that have led to firm friendships, productive collaborations and concrete outcomes. The same I cannot say for my Facebook and Bebo accounts, which I recently criticised in an interview for Information World Review journal. Twitter is promoting conversation that is only one degree of connection away, and the results are longer lasting. It's just a pity more people don't get it.
Reference: Ryberg, T. and Christiansen, E. (2008) Community and social network sites as Technology Enhanced Learning Environments. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 17 (3), 207-220.
Image source: The Millenium Bridge, Tyneside (c) Steve Wheeler 2007