We’ve all heard of the idea that there are six degrees of separation between any two individuals. Now, through relationships on FaceBook researchers have produced the biggest ever study to analyse the concept. The results show a “world smaller than we thought”. The publication of this research provides important insight for strategy and measurement within public diplomacy.
Overview of findings:
The study was conducted by researchers from Facebook & Università degli Studi di Milano, Italy. It used the active user network of around 721 million users and 69 billion friendship links. The study found;
- “the average distance of the current Facebook graph is 4:74”.
- “In the current Facebook graph 92% of the pairs of reachable users are within distance five—four degrees of separation”.
- “The results obtained suggests the existence of overlapping clusters similar to those observed in other social networks.”
Why these findings should interest practitioners and scholars of public diplomacy:
Following the rationale of such a study, successful strategy is likely to be based on analysis of the existing relationships within the complex architecture of the multi-hub, multi-directional networks that exist between communities around the world. Within this context there is a need to consider collaborative approaches when seeking to have influence within huge interconnected networks.
To put this into action strategic focus of a professional public diplomat is the aggregated connections and interactions between activists and communities across society. Single issue, hyphenated diplomacy initiatives – ‘water’, ‘science’, or ‘faith’ amongst others – may have an important role within a specific endeavour. However, professional public diplomacy strategies are based on an overview of existing interactions, bridging numerous issue areas and an understanding of the behaviours most likely to facilitate connection or collaboration.
The research emphasises the importance of including relationships as one of the units of measurement within public diplomacy and international broadcasting.
The nature of the relationship being measured may differ. The measure might be; continued communication, sustained relationships, or sharing of digital content. Alternatively, evaluation may focus on the distance a message travelled or the way different clusters of individuals interpreted the message.
No matter which, relationships needs to be part of the analysis.
What might this look like?
In March 2011 President Obama went to Brazil – the website ObamaBr.org received thousands of messages and comments. In addition to those communicating directly with the site, accounts were created across across YouTube, Twitter, Orkut and Flickr to intereact with users in their chosen spaces. An analysis of the social media response to these activities can be found in the InterMedia white paper; Evaluating Online Public Diplomacy
One aspect of strategy and evaluation is direct interaction between the agent of public diplomacy and a local community. The second aspect is where the particular public diplomacy activity sits within wider discussions and content sharing. This is because, every American public diplomacy activity takes place within the wider discussion of the President and US Policy.
This image shows the different clusters of information sharing that took place on Twitter about President Obama around the time he was arriving in Brazil. (If the image appears black, click on the image to zoom in, you may be zoomed out a long way)
Through analysis of network data such as this, it is possible to identify the individual accounts from which Twitter users often share content on a specific issue. With that information, decisions can be taken to focus on particular key nodes who may, for example, act as ‘reach multipliers’.
A combination of factors could be used to select these key nodes from within an area of the network thought to be particularly important. Those factors might include; size of their follower base, amount their content is passed on around a particular issue and the credibility the individual has within that area of the network.
John Guare’s play – Six Degrees of Separation contains the following;
“I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people. It’s a profound thought. …How every person is a new door, opening up into other worlds. Six degrees of separation between me and everyone else on this planet. But to find the right six people.”
Public diplomacy is ultimately about reaching and connecting the right people. At issue is not that an individual is connected to another by a short path, but whether that information is available and whether either individual can use it.
This presents an opportunity for public diplomacy activities to gain influence or social capital by acting as boundary spanners or bridges between networks of individuals who may benefit from connection.
The information on how people connect is relatively widely available. The technology is available – the commercial value of the hardware used in the Facebook experiment “is of the order of a few thousand dollars” and it is unlikely a public diplomacy activity would regularly need analysis of a similar scale to mapping 69 billion relationships on FaceBook. In fact, echoing discussion of the ‘Laptop Ambassador’ many public diplomacy initiatives could be analysed on a modern laptop running open source software.