back to article Microsoft 'proves' six degrees of separation theory

Microsoft researchers claim to have proved the pop-social-psychology shibboleth that we are no more that six degrees of separation removed from any other human being on the planet. The six degrees of separation theory first espoused by Stanley Milgram has given students and newspaper columnists something to talk about since …


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  1. oliver Stieber

    well if you count spammers.

    If they were counting spammers and those random people who send you messages then there probably are six degrees of freedom, just some of the people in those points are anonymous.

  2. Andrew Abdul-Malek

    1st comment

    "stripped of identifying information we are assured" - i like this line, because its so nice and short, and so re-assuring.

    i have seen a terminal, which logs every IM instance, every piece of text, every image, every IP address, every timestamp. so, maybe for this particular research project, it was stripped, but had to be stripped, as in they have the information but they removed it specifically.

    imagine in a court of law, i was being charged for reckless driving. according to this logic i could say "yes that is my car, and I was driving it, but for this purpose i would like to strip all of that information, and i did it so well that you can't prove that i was driving, can i go now?"

    Thumb Down

    So to paraphrase...

    ... researchers at Redmond have been keeping copies of messages sent by all users of its IM service since at least June 2006.

    And the messages were stripped of identifying information before being handed over to Eric to read^h^h^h^h analyse?

    Oh fine, because anonymisation is so easy to do on the internet, with a simple magic spell that can read all languages/understands all identifiers.

    I'd always thought MSN Messenger was untrustworthy; I think if you were in doubt this 'research' would confirm it beyond doubt.

  4. Anonymous Coward


    According to the report;

    "We gathered data for 30 days of June 2006. Each day yielded about 150 gigabytes of compressed text logs (4.5 terabytes in total). Copying the data to a dedicated eight-

    processor server with 32 gigabytes of memory took 12 hours. Our log-parsing system employed a pipeline of four threads that parse the data in parallel, collapse the session join/leave events into sets of conversations, and save the data in a compact compressed binary format. This process compressed the data down to 45 GB per day. Processing the data took an additional 4 to 5 hours per day."

    Please can someone explain, how is that different to "wiretapping" by ISPs?

  5. Nick Kew Bronze badge

    They've posted evidence for the opposite.

    So they've come up with a little over six ..

    ... from a sample that is self-selecting and oriented to their particular service.

    You or I (any El Reg reader) is no doubt just one person away from at least one MSN user. Not so most of Africa, and even pockets within the developed world.

    The 'net is all about connectivity. It would be surprising if 'net users didn't have *significantly lower* degrees of separation than non-net-users, particularly where large communities are not connected. A self-selecting bunch like MSNers just amplify that effect.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down


    I don't see anything newsworthy here, at least not in the way that MS paints it. Researchers have already shown the "scale-free" nature of human social networks. The average number of degrees of separation is a number that falls naturally out of those findings. All MS has done on this occasion is performed a massive trawl of its users and their connections and shown that reality matches the models.

    While this aspect of social networks is interesting (in a Kevin Bacon or Donald Sutherland kind of way) I don't see any practical value (whether it be for marketers, intelligence agencies, social scientists or whoever else) in knowing how closely any give individual is connected with any other random individual. I'm no more than three degrees of separation from Bertie Ahern, the Dalai Llama and Adolph Hitler, for example. Does that information do anyone any good? Hardly. Most civilised societies make it quite clear that "guilt by association" is not a valid basis for jurisprudence. This is quite intuitively obvious, but I wonder if the chaps in Microsoft have, in their zeal to embrace the Model, forgotten to ask "but what good is it?"

    Speaking of Hitler (as I was, briefly, above), one wonders if MS will attempt to replicate any other Milgram experiment? I'm thinking specifically of the "lost letter" experiment, and not his infamous "Stanford prison experiment". Although now that I've mentioned that, I must say that it boggles the mind to understand why Microsoft would want to associate itself with Milgram at all...

    (anonymous out of sensitivity, not because I'm hiding)


  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    small world theory was a bit like moores law. Kind of a rough guestamet.

    The Milgram Experiment though shows us a terrafying fact about humanity.

    The Stanford Prison Experiment wasn't conducted by Milgram, but Philip Zimbardo, and again this was an increadible insight into human pathology, and draws parallels.

    Both are viewed as being unethical, but that doesn't invalidate the terrifying results.

    Most people follow orders blindly eevn in the face of human suffering, and when placed in positions of absolute power people become abusers, whilst those with absolutely no power become submissive.

    That is of course why people try to ignore the results of Milgram and Zimbardo. We just don't like to believe that people give in so easily, they are two increadibly damning studies.

  8. Fox
    Gates Horns

    Those gentlefolk recently photographed (by aeroplane) in Brazil

    Nice to see something of such an unusually high quality emanating from Redmond. Especially something as venerable as "research". Wonderful.

    I look forward to them "proving" that it's Father Christmas who eats the mince pies the kiddies leave at the fireplace. MMMMMmmmmmmmmmmmm... mince pies.

    Sorry, wrong number.

    No Icon for David Icke so had to make do.

  9. Funky Dennis
    Black Helicopters

    @AC, 11:28

    Well, if I was that closely associated with Bertie Ahern, I'd want to remain anonymous too.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Microsoft seem to think...

    ... that anybody who doesn't use MSN Messenger isn't a human being.

  11. KenBW2
    Thumb Down

    When was the last time... spoke to your sister, or mother, or grandmother on msn? Are they not links?

  12. Kevin P.

    You are all forgetting...

    ...that my friend talks to John Romero on MSN.

  13. Chris

    How does this prove anything?

    The research seems to actually DIS-prove the 6 degrees theory - "the researchers said some users could only be connected by 29 hops."

    OK, they might be connectable by less if you go outside MSN, but in order for the theory to be "true" (or more acurately "correct"), it would need to work for ANY two people in any large group.

    If it doesn't work for the group of MSN users, being a subset of humanity, it can't be true in general. Unless you want to argue that MSN users aren't human...

  14. Solomon Grundy

    @proof and Lost Letters

    The "x" degrees of separation theory was proved by the Lost Letter experiment - you're talking like the theory and the proof are two separate things...not sure why?

    On another note MS is interested in proving the "x" degrees of separation because they have heavily invested in a few new "viral marketing networks" that build on the separation principal. Of course all the reports cited in this article are tied back to a Washington Post article, but that's just because El Reg reporters don't read Inc. which ran a very similar article back in '07 about the interest in proving the separation theory and the MS and Elon Musk component.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Wikipedia article

    Sorry, but I thought The Register was pretty skeptical on Wikipedia. Why the link to the Six Degrees of Separation article?

  16. AntiSol
    Gates Horns

    "stripped of identifying information"


    ...could somebody explain to me how you determine the degree of seperation between two people, after you've "stripped identifying information"? Am I the only one who sees a slight flaw in logic here?

    Also, how many degrees of seperation between people like me, who categorically refuse to use MSN Messenger or aMSN? Infinity?

    Mine's the one with the plush penguin in the pocket...

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I recorded an interview with Eric Horvitz on Sunday.

    The story isn't bogus and it's not based on a Washington Post article. I recorded the audio for a lengthy video interview with Mr. Horvitz on Sunday for ABC News Good Morning America and he's very dedicated and genuine in his research. Please take a look at his Homepage and examine his credentials in this field.

    I'll also say that when point blank asked about the confidentiality of the data he was very clear that there was NO IDENTIFYING information whatsoever used in this research.

    One of the more interesting things to look at when we went to his office was a graphical representation of the messaging connection data on a world map. The connections interestingly just about define all of the borders of the continents and countries. Of course there are dark areas where computers have little penetration but the map was far more complete than I would have imagined.

  18. John

    Flawed research from MS (again)

    The biggest, and most obvious, flaw in this research is that not everyone is on MSN.

    The number of degrees of seperation would come down if you include everyone in the world. I bet you know more people than you have in your IM contact list. I know lots of people down at my local who know lots of other people, but I drink beer and chat with them, I don't IM / email / facebook them.

    Given MS's history of "research" I'm sure there were many other "features" of their methodology that wouldn't last 15 minutes in a scientifically peer reviewed process.

  19. Anonymous Coward

    I use MSN and I'm certainly NOT human

    I don't trust M$ to offer me anything by way of value for money, I don't expect them to provide me with a reliable operating system, I don't trust the content of automatic updates and always check them manually, I don't even trust M$ to provide me with a games console, I most definately do not trust M$ to keep my data safe... why the fuck should I trust random in-house psychological and demographic "research" conducted by a software house that I don't trust to build software?

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