It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears
It’s a world of hopes and a world of fears
There’s so much that we share that it’s time we’re aware
It’s a small world after all
– R. M. Sherman & R. S. Sherman, “It’s a small world”
The children’s song is actually quite right—it is indeed a small world, and we should be aware. After all, while we each have our close social networks, those networks extend much further than the people we may realize. In his book, Duncan J. Watts presents that while there are many differences between people due to their diversity in location, religion, and culture, these differences cannot completely disrupt the existence of social networks spanning between them.
Social networks are not simply one layer of connections; they span several layers. For example, I have my friends, who have other connections, who have further connections beyond that. If I were to belong to a church and only interact with the people there, I would still have connections to other groups through the social network since someone else in my immediate network (or their network) would have connections. Religious leaders, for example, have connections with people from all walks of life.
Extending this concept to social media is simple. LinkedIn shows your distance in the network from individuals you do and do not know. Those you know are 1st, their connections are 2nd, and their respective connections are 3rd. That means I only have to go through two people to reach someone who is three layers out, which is not that far to go. My LinkedIn account shows that my number of 2nd level connections is just over 305,000, which means that the 3rd level contacts should be somewhere in the millions.
I decided to test this and see whom I could potentially reach through working with two layers of the social network. I started by looking up Watts and found him in 3rd level– I could potentially reach him by going through two levels of contacts. I felt like that one was too easy since I could Watts has connections to the software industry via Microsoft. Therefore, I looked for someone who was functionally completely different than me; I looked up the world’s top physicists, which eventually led me to Edward Witten’s (CalTech) LinkedIn profile. To my surprise, I was the same distance from this Fields Medal winner as I was from Watts. What this shows is that Watts is indeed correct—it is, indeed, a small world after all.