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One degree of separation

one_degree_heads For the last hundred years, humanity has rapidly been responsible for shrinking the world through our technological advancements. We are closer connected to those we care about and to total strangers. We are moving towards a society where you can be connected with just one degree of separation.

You might have heard the term Six degrees of separation which refers to an idea coined by Kevin Bacon (yes, the Hollywood actor). It’s this concept that refers to feeling and saying “it’s a small world”. Have you ever had the experience that you meet a stranger and after talking to them you quickly realize that people in their network is in some way connected to your own social network?

There has been a lot of research on the validity of this idea with Six degrees of separation and there are no conclusive results, though there are many that shows 6 to be a very good approximate.

By the name of this article I’m not trying to tell that we are moving towards a one degree of separation with everyone on the Earth, which is somewhat the principle behind the 6 degrees. I want to talk about the ability to connect with anyone of your interest more easily than before. You can today connect directly with individuals that a few years ago were untouchable and unreachable for us mere mortals. Things have changed and the change will continue.

Work, Hobbies and Interests

It’s our jobs, our hobbies and interests which is the binding glue for our social networks and interactions. You normally don’t have interactions with individuals that work in a totally different industry or has opposite interests of your own. We are a social race and we continuously seek the acceptance and approval of our peers, both in our professional careers, and our online communities where we participate with great passion and energy.

It’s a human urge to share our experiences and knowledge. And we do this on an ever increasing rate through social networks, Web 2.0, email and instant messages like SMS, online chats and services like Twitter. The amount of information we create is mind-boggling.

A quick search on Flickr photo service for Bill Gates returns 11,402 results (Google Image search returns 4.1 million hits). Doing the same for Steve Jobs returns 12,564 results and Barack Obama gives us 226,947 images. That is mostly photographs taken by individuals like you and me, and shared freely for anyone to experience (and share alike if licensed under Creative Commons).

With our hobbies and interests in mind, we seek out likeminded individuals on forums, blogs and online chats. We’re able to find people that share our similar interests in a very short time, and due to the fact that we are a lot more trustworthy with communication going through our computer than with other humans in the physical world – we sometimes connect very fast and on a very deep level.

Mental overload

There might be physical consequences on the brain from having huge social networks that we do not yet fully understand. While it previously was the domain of kings, royals and famous people to have thousands of first hand contacts – this is becoming commonplace for many C-celebrities, bloggers and online personalities.

This effect can be easily experienced if you travel to a place like Hollywood which is crowded with celebrities many of us has seen on television. Even though we’ve never shared a single word with these actors and actresses, we somehow feel like we know them – and know them very intimately.

It is a very strange feeling when you walk down the local street and you see the winner from the latest Idol contest, everybody is looking, pointing and talking about them. Some might dare to ask for an autograph. Yet one thing everyone around them has in common, they feel that they know them after watching a full season of Idol or "So You Think You Can Dance?”

We’ve watched them (actors and actresses) week after week for many years and been with them through the tough and hard times, and through love and romance. We know more about them than our local friends. While not everybody is able to travel to places like Hollywood and Mumbai (the heart of Bollywood), and not everyone is lucky to meet famous people on the streets, we are now getting a new way of connecting with everyone. Not only can we connect, we can influence and we can be heard.

Blogging and Messaging

one_degree_diagram There are today millions of blogs that you can read and subscribe too. Blogs are an easy way for anyone to speak their mind, share their thoughts and experiences. The problem with blogs has long been their inability to have a decent two-way communication with its readers. Websites in the good old days of the Internet was nothing but a one-way communication channel. Corporations and people tried to convince their visitors to buy the products and read their stories. Blogs arrived not a long time ago and has been the new craze for a while. It opened up to a more social and personal form of communication, still it’s been mostly one-way communication. Most blogs has the ability for readers to add comments (I would argue that a blog without comment functionality isn’t a blog but a website). Some blogs have been very good at involving its readers in a two-way communication, yet it’s far between them.

Keeping a blog interesting and updated is a lot harder than most people think and it’s a form of communication that takes time and effort.

Micro-blogging.

Few years back, a new service arrived that forced users to limit their messages to a maximum of 140 messages. That service is called Twitter. Millions of users are using Twitter today and the service is just a few years old.

Micro-blogging is the clue that makes online communication more accessible to anyone. It doesn’t require much effort and is synonymous with mobile SMS message. I can pretty confidently say that everyone that reads this article has sent SMS messages before. And we send them more than ever, yet it’s an old technology and it’s still very expensive. During the 2008 holidays, we sent a record of mobile messages to everyone we care about. SMS is a one-to-one communication protocol and doesn’t work well for things like New Year celebrations. Another analogy to the mobile messages is the instant messaging, where you can connect and keep connected with your friends and contacts and has sporadic chats and dialogs. Instant messaging is a great tool for keeping in contact after the initial connection over blogs, email or Twitter.

Twitter is a way for you to send messages to everyone you care about (and by default everyone else can read it as well). And it’s absolutely free.

There are a lot of other interesting Web 2.0 services out in the online computer Cloud, services that makes it easier for individuals to share information. They are beyond the context of this article. One concern I want to mention is services that has the sole purpose of allowing you to share your travel plans and current whereabouts. That’s details you probably want to keep a close lid on, as you will realize later in this article.

Connecting with your Idols

Micro-blogging has lowered the bar of entering online collaborative communication so that anyone can join in. It’s so simple that even your grandmother would probably be able to figure it out.

Combine the simplicity of the service and the current media hype behind Twitter, thousands of new users sign up every day. Many of which are celebrities and important individuals. Artists, philosophers, politicians, presidents, technologists, futurists and everyone else. They are all there and more will come.

In every field of interest and hobby, there are certain high profiled individuals that everyone listens to. We read their books, we read their online publications and now we can read their tweets. While books and publications (or music or art or any other form of intellectual creation) are a good form of education and learning deeply about the concepts and ideas that those people has – twitter is a way to connect on a more personal level. As I mentioned before, we trust computers more than we trust people. Hence, we tend to write too much, say the wrong words or put all the facts out there. That can be dangerous, but it’s also an interesting opportunity to learn the real faces behind the public personas.

With the fear of forgetting important people, I won’t start to make an exhaustive list of those already on Twitter, but I want to mention a few. Some people are just too famous, like Barack Obama and Britney Spears. There is no way those have the ability to follow up on Twitter personally, so they have assistants that does their tweets. That’s just reasonable and we can’t complain.

Then we have everyone else, those who have a few thousand followers on Twitter and can write their own tweets. That’s your local politicians, local athletes, local news reporters and local artists.

Start subscribing to the tweets of those that you have an interest in. Don’t tweet for the sake of just tweeting; make sure you speak your mind. Nobody cares if you’re currently shaving or driving down the highway.

A quick digression from the topic of this article: If you’re in a plane that is crashing, everybody wants to hear about it. A single tweet can make a huge difference, you can go from an unknown to someone everybody knows over night. Twitters reports events from around the world, long time before the news media.

Influencing People

It’s the collaborative experience of Twitter that makes it such a success. It’s hard to write any deep thoughts and show your insight on a topic with a limit of 140 characters. Yet there are opportunities that arrive every day; the people you connect with on Twitter might have a problem or a question that you know the answer too. Things that is hard to understand for others can be easy to for you.

That makes for perfect opportunities to influence people – your insight on a topic or question, or your imaginative ideas and thoughts, will at some point be read by others. Take this hypothetical situation: Madonna is having a hard time figuring out the theme of her next music video and she writes a quick tweet on the frustration she’s feeling:

Madonna_Twitter

If you happen to be in the music video industry, and there is a lot of artists and directors on Twitter today, you could pitch your great idea for a theme of her next video. Maybe, you’ll even be lucky to get the job.

There is no way such an interaction could happen in the real life, neither would it happen using email and it wouldn’t be possible with a simple website. If Madonna kept a personal blog, she would probably not write such a post there anyway. Most likely would her posts be focused on her latest album and the previous music video?

Twitter is about micro-blogging in the moment.

It has very little value going back and looking at the history of tweets and discussions that went on in the past. Don’t understand me wrong on this, the history and information is important and can be used to make some very interesting analysis on patterns and trends, but the individual posts doesn’t have much value for the individual.

The power to influence others is one not to be taken lightly.

Privacy Concerns

Being anonymous on the Internet is increasingly difficult. Not only in the technical terms but also interacting online under a pseudo-name doesn’t always work. Few people will take your seriously if you’re not honest about who you really are, and trust is important to build connections.

That does not mean you need to share your phone number, your home address and your current whereabouts to others to make them trust you. That is personal information you need to keep out of reach of others.

Many twitters write about their plans to travel somewhere or they write where they are right now. That is information that can be used by anyone to harm you. They could be robbing your apartment while you’re drinking your cup of coffee. This is also a very powerful tool for sporadic and agile interactions and communication with other likeminded individuals, a very easy and cheap way to organize gatherings of all forms.

Micro-blogging is a recent phenomenon and the consequence is only beginning to take shape. It’s better to be safe than sorry and I urge everyone to think twice before you post your next tweet.

Until next time, be well!

@SondreB

References

Here follows some interesting links and references for you to dig deeper into the social web:

John Cleeses is who he says he is, twittering with us twaths :-)

Lance Armstrong, Snoop Dog, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Gore… “Kjente folk på twitter” – NRKBeta

Here is a long list of famous people on Twitter: http://thelistenerd.com/2008/05/07/some-people-who-twitter-who-might-interest-you/

There is even a special Celebrity Tweet, which aggregates famous people’s tweets. Some people think they understand twitter and the psychology behind it, and some sites reports on social media. I don’t think we’ll ever fully understand the consequences micro-blogging. Time will tell.

A co-worker of mine, Steinar Årdal, is very much into Social Media and Micro-blogging, check him out!

Remember what I said, focus on your local community and gain a connection with those that can make a difference for your life and situation.

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