The Kevin Bacon Effect
By Jeff Ginger
Last updated 07.2007
Synopsis: Facebook is offers strong evidence towards the theory of Connectors and, in fact, may be an easily traced example of social epidemics.
Introducing the Connector! Actually you already know them
A few years ago a rather innovative fellow named Malcolm Gladwell published a book, The Tipping Point, which spurred a watershed of attention to the roots and effects of epidemic social change. The book assumes a mostly a marketing-centric standpoint, but as marketing and advertising are really just the dark offspring of sociology, is in essence an intriguing interpretation of how actors and agency shape the social world. Gladwell explains a number of phenomena, from hush puppy shoes to changing crime rates in New York using a model of analysis based on three influential types of people. He deemed these archetypes as the Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen.
Of interest in regards to the Facebook Project are Connectors, which Malcolm typifies as those people in a community who make the world a small place. The operational world view behind connectors is that the well know six degrees of separation doesn't really refer to any given person being linked to anyone else in six steps - but instead that "a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those special people" (Gladwell 2002). Researchers have been tangling with this idea of global and national interconnectivity ever since the 60’s when Travers and Milgram proved through a letter tracking experiment that even the most ordinary of people were reasonably well connected. With the addition of the internet and searchable social networks generally any person with a hookup to the net can reach another in just a few concise, efficient, and well-chosen leaps (Watts, Dodds, and Newman 2002). Though Gladwell offers little research-based evidence to support his claim he cites a number of historical examples and exercises to explain the concept.
He identifies several signifiers that might be used to characterize a Connector. First and most obvious is that they know a lot of people. The extent to which they know others is classified using Granovetter's (1973) idea of weak ties. Weak ties to an individual represent loose, weak, or few relational connections - perhaps a distant relative, someone you met in class, or a coworker in another department. Generally these weak ties are termed acquaintances and form low density social networks. Granovetter sparked an avalanche of research investigating the importance or strength of weak ties as they relate to the flow of information, job market, political involvement, and upkeep of one’s personal life (Granovetter 1983). Findings varied widely in all of the different types of research but generally weak ties can be considered a sort of form of social capital - networked, participatory, and community commitment related (Wellman's model, 2001). In short, Connectors have many weak ties, and it's nothing new that people with many weak ties are advantaged in a contemporary social system.
Connectors have more to them than this, however. Not only do they know a staggering sheer number of individuals, but they also maintain weak ties with many types of people. Gladwell discusses this in relation to Kevin Bacon, who can be easily trounced in his own movie game by Rod Steiger, an older actor involved in many more films of all kinds.
How is it that connectors are able to come to know so many people - and so many types of people at that? Gladwell also investigates Connectors from a lifestyle standpoint. There's a sort of notoriety to being the person that knows everyone else - they're highly assertive individuals who initiate social interactions with others and often lead. They have good memories or keep track of their connections in an effective manner and orient themselves in social circumstances to make for memorable interactions. Being good with names is just the first step - they read others and select conversational content and the process in which they develop it in an adaptive manner. Something along the lines of being a combination of approachable and easy to relate to mixed with a high level of motivation and assertiveness. Gladwell relates that age and opportunity strongly correlate - the more exposure a connector gets the more chances they have to broaden their ensemble of weak ties.
Something important in his analysis, however, is that the scope is key in consideration of the Connector. A given community will usually have its ring leaders; its outspoken and charismatic folk. In the scope of the University of Illinois, I know a lot of students - in so many different analytic categories. But if you suspend me from that environment, and say, ask me how connected I am in New Delhi, India, all I can offer is a short list of students I know from the country, nothing more. The internet, however, adds a new dimension here, but I'll get to that. Point is there's no king or queen Connector presiding over the entire world who knows everyone. No it's a mesh of different types of intersecting communities all with their big names and well connected individuals.
I should also note, as it's a common critique, that the line between weak connections isn't clearly defined and is by nature dynamic. Just what constitutes a relationship and who we define as a good friend is highly disputed. Regardless - connectors have, on average, more of the weaker types of connections (however they are defined) than other people. This does not mean they do not have strong ties - indeed they likely need these to live a happy life - but their reliance on them is diminished and constraining.
Bridging to Facebook
So how then, does all of this relate to Facebook? Social Networking Services (SNS), especially Facebook, are constructed primarily of weak ties. These can be a reflection of a sort of division of labor - specialized relationships between individuals (class, work, organizations, friends, family, relationships, etc...) and might fit with Durkheim's idea that a wide variety of different viewpoints and activities socially construct a context and core that is well poised to confront varied expectations (Granovetter 1983). Similarities in people determine the propensity for the formation of ties - and environments like Facebook facilitate for the many types of relations people might have. The complex role sets Connector participants bring with them into the system stimulate the development of intellectual flexibility and self direction.
In short, Facebook is a veritable playground for Connectors. Their weak ties can flourish here - Facebook offers more opportunities through compounded and elaborate sharing of identities and media. The temporal aspect further amplifies this - face-to-face social interactions are synchronous activities (if you and I hang out it's got to be at the same time) - but Facebook creates an aggregate of asynchronous relations for the Connector. As Mark Zuckerberg put it in his keynote address at f8 (2007), they can connect more efficiently than ever before. Efficiency is a scary word isn't it? More connections at any time don’t speak to the quality of a given relationship, but from the perspective of weak tie formation Facebook succeeds admirably.
I want to pause for a second to make an important point: Facebook gives us a chance to find quantifiable evidence of the Connector archetype. This is not only new, but could be crucial to the sociological study of such systems.
The countable effect of connectors is demonstrated by what Zuckerberg (2007 f8 keynote) refers to as the Social Graph - which is really just his term for network effects. The idea, essentially, is that the system gains value with more participants (this runs a bit opposite to traditional notions of supply and demand) as each added participant brings new dimensions to the system (diversity from their identity and also possibly new media). One person is connected to their friends, who are connected to their friends and so on and so forth.
Hunting the Connector
So how do we identify a connector on Facebook? Chances are at least a lesser one has already found you. Beyond this, number of friends is a good first start. This isn't enough however - some people just try to collect as many friends as they can, while others might have a very limited variance in their large number of buddies. Members of the Pan-Hellenic government might know everyone in the Greek setting but have never met the vast majority of minority students. Likewise a guy on the basketball team might have a couple thousand lady admirers but this doesn't make him a connector. No, a connector on Facebook would know people from many walks in life - and really know them too, not just be known.
A good way to test would be to go down someone's large list of friends and have them explain where they know each person. The explanations would reveal the variance in circumstances they might have met those people as well as demonstrate just how well they know them. The kid who made the automated friend collection program or sports player who has a million fans would be ousted and the scope of types of communities a suspect connector is involved in would be better defined.
All told, the Connector found on Facebook would still be encapsulated in the realm of Facebook - we can't really measure 40+ something connectors in the business world with an SNS they've never been a part of. So if you want to track down Connectors in the college scene, Facebook is your bet. And as grows and begins to penetrate the international and older aged world at an astounding rate, it will become a better predictor of Connectors outside of the scope of a given school or network.
The Power of Connectors
What're the ramifications of Connectors being a reality? They empower the Facebook system - they mediate the flow of information between peoples. If you've got one person, with one friend, and they post a cool video on Facebook, sweet, their friend might see it. If a Connector sees that video and pushes it on Facebook, regardless of types and depth of their weak ties, they have (say) a thousand friends who might see it. And it's pretty likely a few of those thousand are also Connectors. If the chain of Connectors encourages something (perhaps a group about Oregon Trail) then pretty soon that something can become a social epidemic.
A quick side item: Facebook's incarnation itself was a social epidemic - we can observe it reaching a tipping point with its various audiences. Facebook fits the concepts of Stickiness (Heath 2007) and embodies simplicity (identity & media sharing), unexpectedness (a fundamentally dynamic system full of what you always wanted to know but never could before), concreteness (documented and sustained web form), credibility (higher levels of trust and total population saturation), emotion (owning your own identity, the excitement of new connection, and continual connection to friends), and stories (both the Facebook meta-narrative as well as the countless episodes of friends).
Regardless, Facebook is engineered to encourage and direct collaborative and collective activity. What Danah Boyd refers to as a hegemonic community (boyd 2007) is homogenous in its movements on purpose - the system is designed to pick up on group behaviors and trends and publish them in the newsfeed. There is power in the group think and the agency of the mass - getting those to act who won't do it without seeing their friends do it first. Everyone is clamoring over the possibilities for marketing, sure, but I wonder about the avenues for social change or political involvement.
In this system of mass movements and near-infinite connections the Connectors run the show simply by having a greater influence over the information that travels between people. Facebook rides the waves of the masses and connectors start the waves. Just as they help to shape the face-to-face world by bringing people together and spreading ideas, Connectors drive the force of Facebook as well. So go check it out - see if you can find a connector or two on Facebook, and give them some props for making the system possible... and maybe drop them a copy of your new movie too.
boyd, danah. "Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace ." Apophenia Blog Essay. June 24 , 2007. http://www.danah.org/papers/essays/ClassDivisions.html
Gladwell, Malcom. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. New York: Little, Brown & Company, Inc., 2002.
Heath, Chip and Dan Heath. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Random House 2007.
Watts, Duncan J., Peter Sheridan Dodds, and M.E.J. Newman. "Identity and Search in Social Networks." Science, Vol. 296, No. 5571, p1302-1306.