London, March 14 : A study of Microsoft Messenger users lends more force to the 'six degrees of separation' concept, an idea that we are only six steps removed from almost anyone else on the planet.
Eric Horvitz of Microsoft Research in Redmond, Washington, looked at a month's worth of global 'instant messaging' conversations using Microsoft Messenger, and counted how many messages were sent and from where.
Working with Jure Leskovec, who was an intern at the time, Horvitz tallied up a whopping 255 billion messages sent in the course of 30 billion conversations among 240 million people during June 2006.
The researchers neither had any identifiable data nor the access to message content. They could, however, could correlate messages with information about age and gender logged by users when they registered for the service.
"We didn't probe individuals, we were looking at patterns," Nature magazine quoted Horvitz as saying.
Using the figures thus gathered, the researchers created a map of communication hotspots across the world, which enabled them to trace the extent of separation between Microsoft Messenger users.
The researchers found that the average shortest number of jumps to get from one Microsoft user to another was 6.6.
Horvitz expressed surprise over such a closeness of his study's results with the infamous 'six degrees of separation' demonstrated practically in a group of 64 persons by Stanley Milgram at Harvard University in 1967.
The finding made Horvitz wonder whether the number six was a basic constant for social interactions.
"Do we have a natural harmonic for social communication?" he asks.
"This is my conjecture - more work needs to be done on that," he adds.
The researchers say that their analysis might have produced a larger number for the shortest separation between people had they took into account people who do not use computers and the internet.
According to them, it is difficult to say what would happen if the data truly covered the Earth's complete social network.
Horvitz and Leskovec, however, expect the numbers to stand up.
"I can only speculate, but I think we would see something very similar, maybe a small increase in average path length, something more towards seven degrees of separation," says Leskovec.
Horvitz and Leskovec will present their study at the 17th International Conference on World Wide Web in Beijing in April1.