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Six Degrees of Preparation?

People have always had their own social networks, of course, but these networks weren’t explicitly mapped until the last century. In the 1930s, a psychiatrist named Jacob Moreno invented the sociogram, a series of dots and lines showing people’s social connections. Neat idea, hard to do: a single sociogram typically represented hours of laborious interviews. Harvard University psychologist Stanley Milgram’s famous 1967 finding that on average we’re only six acquaintances away from anyone else on the planet was still almost 30 years ahead of the technology needed to take advantage of it.

Finally, in the mid-1990s, powerful networked computers became widespread, e-mail began to displace the telephone for many types of conversations, and the Web started to emerge as a kind of electronic reflection of communities, businesses, individuals, and their interests. Entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to help people make more of their electronic connections. That was the concept behind sixdegrees, launched in 1997, which at its height counted more than three million members in its network. At the time, however, advertising was the main source of revenue for Web companies; when online ad revenues failed to grow, so did sixdegrees, which was purchased by YouthStream Media Networks for $125 million in stock in 2000 but shut down a year later.

But the ideas are back, and in spades. Post-bubble trauma is finally fading; home broadband connections reach 38 percent of U.S. Internet users-almost 50 million people, up from virtually zero in 1997; and the spread of programs like Microsoft Outlook means that most home Internet users and office workers already have the names and addresses of their acquaintances compiled in electronic form. “Social networking was a good idea then, it’s a good idea now, and it’ll be a good idea in 2011,” argues sixdegrees’ founder Andrew Weinreich, who’s now a Visible Path advisory-board member. “This is the time for it.”

LinkedIn, a business-focused networking site operating from Mountain View, CA, is fairly typical. Users create a profile on the site, which can be as basic as a name and a set of business interests or as broad as an entire work history. They can then search for people they know on the site-typing names or affiliations into the LinkedIn search engine-and invite them to join their networks. Users can also send e-mail through LinkedIn and directly invite friends and colleagues not already signed up to join their networks by creating LinkedIn profiles of their own. Invitations can be created piecemeal or by uploading entire e-mail contact lists to the site. LinkedIn’s software can automatically send and track invitations and issue reminders to people who are slow to join.

Once connected, users gain access to their friends’ connections and can use LinkedIn’s search engine to search the resulting network for, say, officers or employees of a specific company. If a search produces the name of someone they’d like to meet, they can use the network to ask for an introduction. Contact information is kept private, so requests must be sent through the chain of members linking the inquirer and the target. The bottom line: it becomes extremely easy to search, view, and contact all of your online acquaintances-and their acquaintances, out to four degrees of separation (anything more remote is generally not useful, social-networking insiders say).

It might sound a bit convoluted, but it’s simple in practice-and users claim that they get tangible results. Take Marcus Colombano, a media and technology marketing consultant in San Francisco. Colombano read about a company he thought should be a client, popped its name into LinkedIn, and found he was connected to four people with contacts at the company. He wrote up a proposal and sent it to a friend who had a contact who knew the CEO. Four hours later he got an e-mail from the CEO asking for a meeting. “I’m going to get an opportunity to sit down and do a proposal with these people,” Colombano says. “It’s really quite cool.”

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