Many of you may be familiar with the title Six Degrees of Separation, as it is the name of a famous play written by John Guare, and also the title of a movie staring actor Will Smith. They are both based on the theory that we live in a small world, where we are all connected, by a chain of six acquaintances. The initial idea of the theory is stemming from the work of psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s, where he conducted experiments with people sending letters to strangers, by the use of their acquaintances. The experiment showed that the letters reached their target, by only changing hands six times, thus the idea that we are only six degrees apart (Morse, 2003).
A Society of Social Networks
Long gone are the 1960s, where communication was commonly sent by physical mail, but we are now in an era of information communication technologies (ICTs) and digital social networks like Facebook and Twitter. The theory of six degrees of separation should be more accurate than ever in our connected world, judging from our high amount of digital connections. This would mean that we could easily spread our message to the other side of the world, be it a digital activist campaign or simply a communication message, by just six clicks away. But what happens when there is no mouse to click on, or no technical device to receive the message to? Although it is true that technology has made the world more connected there is evidence that people are still bounded by class, race, and ideas. Looking at figures presented by the World Bank regarding Internet use in the world, it is clearly evident that usage has been increasing steadily since the commercial introduction of the Internet in the 1980s, but still the amount of users by country is varying immensely.
Division within Online Digital Activism
When it comes to online digital activism, it is obvious that groups of people that have access and literacy of ICTs have a clear advantage in expressing and connecting the sharing of ideas, opinions, and messages.
This discourse goes under the widely discussed topic concerning the digital divide, defined by the OECD as a term that refers to the gaps in access to ICT. The over representation of Westerners using the Internet in the cause to help countries in the developing world have even been accused to be tied up to the colonial past, and the attempt to civilize non-western others. An example of a digital activist campaign that received this kind of criticism is the #kony2012 campaign, where author Teju Cole accuses the campaign to be marked by a White Savior Industrial Complex.
The Issue of Information Overload
Another issue, which concerns the digitalized parts of the world, is information overload and our ability to handle impressions. When there is too much around us, we tend to be highly selective in what we see and take in. Facebook uses the same logic, by the use of advanced algorithms, which determines how materials are shown to each individual user based on their interactions on the network (Meikle, 2016). This explains why, although I have increased my network of connections on my Facebook profile over the years, tend to see postings of a relatively few number of acquaintances repeatedly. Friends I do not interact with often are not prioritized in my feed, and so are also news and information, or any digital activist campaign that the algorithm of Facebook has calculated to be of less importance to me. So although my network of connections has grown, it has somehow become smaller. Writer Nelson Granados is in his Forbes article writing about How Facebook Biases Your News Feed, and the act of personalizing it can actually work against you.
There is a risk of developing tunnel vision, when news and other postings are based on your past clicks and comments.
There is also a tendency for people to establish psychological barriers when geographical boundaries are blurring. The ongoing political trend of right-wing parties in Europe and the most likely upcoming event of Brexit, as well as the recent election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, are all a proof that people are scared to be connected to things unknown.
So in conclusion to my arguments, I would like to point out that the theory of six degrees of separation is far from being empirical looking from a global perspective. Although ICTs have increased our ability to access and spread information, socioeconomic issues related to class, race and ideas, are still hindering its abilities to access people, communities, and countries.
Meikle, G. (2016). Social Media: Communication, Sharing and Visibility. Abingdon: Routledge.
Morse, G. (2003, 02). The Science Behind Six Degrees. (Harvard Business School Publishing) Retrieved 09 2017, from Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2003/02/the-science-behind-six-degrees
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