It’s a Small E-mail World After All

It takes roughly half a dozen e-mail links to reach just about any other person in the world.

We’re all connected. You can send an e-mail message to a friend, and your friend can pass it on to one of his or her friends, and that friend can do the same, continuing the chain. Eventually, your message could reach just about anyone in the world, and it might take only five to seven e-mails for the message to get there.

Scientists recently tested that idea in a study involving 24,000 people. Participants had to try to get a message forwarded to one of 18 randomly chosen people. Each participant started by sending one e-mail to someone they knew. Recipients could then forward the e-mail once to someone they knew, and so on.

Chains of e-mail messages can reach just about any other person in the world in five to seven steps.

Targets, who were randomly assigned by researchers from Columbia University in New York, lived in 13 countries. They included an Australian police officer, a Norwegian veterinarian, and a college professor.

Out of 24,000 chains, only 384 reached their goal. The rest petered out, usually because one of the recipients was either too busy to forward the message or thought it was junk mail.

The links that reached their goal made it in an average of 4.05 e-mails. Based on the lengths of the failed chains, the researchers estimated that two strangers could generally make contact in five to seven e-mails.

The most successful chains relied on casual acquaintances rather than close friends. That’s because your close friends know each other whereas your acquaintances tend to know people you don’t know. The phenomenon, known as the strength of weak ties, explains why people tend to get jobs through people they know casually but aren’t that close to.

So, start networking and instant messaging now. As they say in show business: It’s all about who you know.—E. Sohn

Going Deeper:

Klarreich, Erica. 2003. Small world after all: Short e-mail chains reach targets worldwide. Science News 164(Aug. 16):103. Available at http://www.sciencenews.org/20030816/fob8.asp .

You can learn more about the Internet and computer networks at http://www.ktca.org/newtons/12/internet.html (Newton’s Apple/KTCA Twin Cities Public Television).

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