The Power of Links

April 03, 2008

All of us have heard of the "six degrees of separation" theory, which implies that you can get from any person on the planet to any other person on the planet with only six intervening connections.  For example, I know my father, whose best friend, in turn, is a former Washington DC lobbyist, and has met with former President Bush.  Therefore I'm only four degrees of separation away any number of world leaders.  That and $5 will get you a tall coffee at Starbuck's.

The professional networking site, LinkedIn, capitalizes on geometric growth of connections by letting you leverage the connections your connection's connections have.  At only three degrees of separation my network had approximately 1,839,200 links.  My contacts included fifty-nine people.  The aggregate of their connections was roughly 11,700 more people.  Those second-generation connections in turn produced the final one point eight million number.  Somewhat staggering to conceive.

I tell you all of this because I pruned my connections on LinkedIn today.  There were three old connections that I was always a little uneasy about, which I removed.  They were all technology recruiters with whom I'd had some contact while looking for new consulting engagements 3 years ago.  Since I had never met them, and since the relationship hadn't borne any fruit (i.e., no job), I dropped the link we shared.  Each of the three had the "500+" designation behind their names in my contact list; meaning they each had more that 500 links.  

It would stand to reason then that my second-generation pool would shrink by at least 1500 people.  In actuality it shrunk more than 83%, from 11,700+ to 1,900+.  The third-generation drop was almost exactly the same percentage. There I went from 1,839,200+ connections to 283,500+ connections, a change of 84%.

In the book Linked, the author,  Albert-László Barabási, introduces the idea of a power curve.  Unlike a Bell curve, where the majority of the population has the same, or nearly the same, value, a power curve represents the situation where a very few have all the value, and most have almost no value at all.  There are a handful of web sites (Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft) that garner the most visits, while the vast majority (Zanshin included) collect only a trickle of visitors

It seems that human networks operate on the same principles as the Internet.  Three people out of fifty-nine is only 5%, and yet they accounted for 84% of the total links available to me.  Barabási explores both the six degrees of separation idea, and the fact that some people are nexus or collection points for connections while others aren't.  I, apparently, am not a collection point for connections, which makes me wonder how much the 2nd, and 3rd generation counts dropped for those people who have me as a contact as a result of my pruning today.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.