Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Stanley Milgram and The First Social Network

I just finished reading a very interesting biography of the pioneering (and controversial) social psychologist Stanley Milgram. He is most famous for the Obedience to Authority experiments, whose aim was to measure the willingness of people to obey authority figures, even when those orders are in direct conflict with their own moral sense. A detailed article about the experiment can be found here, but a quick summary is this: the subject was brought into a laboratory-like setting and told to administer progressively stronger electric currents to a "victim" (actually an actor), all for the advancement of science. In an unexpected, and somewhat depressing, result, Milgram found that a full two-thirds of all subjects would administer even lethal does of the current when told to do so by the "scientist" (also an actor) even when the victim was in obvious physical distress. We are far more susceptible to manipulation by authority than we are aware. The numbers broadly hold in many variations of the experiments, and in many different countries.

More relevant to technology and development, Milgram was also a pioneer in social networks. Many decades before orkut, myspace or linkedin, Milgram researched the Small World Phenomenon, which says that the world is much more connected than people think, and any two people can be linked together by a relatively short chain of acquaintances. In fact, he first came up with the famous "six degrees of separation" idea when he found that the length of the chain connecting two pepople is, on average, six. Milgram conducted his experiments in the sixties. Today, with the rise of online social networking tools, mobile communications and cheap transportation, I wonder whether we are actually at "five degrees of separation" and trending lower.

To see the six degrees idea in action, check out the Oracle of Bacon. Type in any actor's name (past, present, any country, any language) and it will show you how they are connected to the actor Kevin Bacon. It's really hard to find a more than three links, and almost impossible to find more than four links. A generalized version is here: you specify both actors and the links are calculated for you.

Milgram is a fascinating character and a brilliant observer of the human condition. I am still processing some of his insights. More to come.