How to Find a Person-of-Interest Using Three Degrees of Connection
The concept of six degrees of separation where all people are six social connections apart was coined in 1929 long before the internet. It needs an update. If you think it has something to do with the internet, then you need an update.
Today, using Facebook, LinkedIn or Google, you can often re-establish with a lost schoolmate or link up with someone you worked with at a previous job, by canvassing someone who may know someone who knows the person in question. That process can happen in as little as three steps (including contacting the person you are looking for) and not six, and it is not social separation, but instead, social connectivity.
Has something changed? Has social networking platforms such as Facebook, Google, Twitter and LinkedIn changed how we connect? Are all social networking platforms created equal?
Abandoned Douglas DC3 Dakota
Six Degrees of Separation is Described as a “Friend-of-a-Friend”
Technically the “six degrees of separation” concept has always been described as a “friend-of-a-friend.” For six degrees, however, this would mean five intermediaries or a friend-of-a-friend of a friend-of-a-friend of a friend-of-a-friend. This concept could equally apply to finding a lost high school buddy or meeting a random stranger and realizing that you know someone in common. My wife is great at that. She can strike up a conversation and, within minutes, discover that they know someone who knows someone who they both know. The realization often results in a shared smile and the proclamation, “It’s certainly a small world, eh!”
I am more interested, however, in finding a person who shares an interest or goal in common with me – someone who has a connection with my world either professionally, financially, academically or ethically. For the sake of clarity, I will use the term “person-of-interest” to represent a person I am trying to find or connect with and with whom I may have something-in-common, but not someone I already know. To be more specific, I believe I will get more out of meeting or connecting with someone “learned” in their field of expertise.
Although Professionals (with an education emphasizing vocational and practical applications) and Academics (with an education emphasizing research and theoretical applications) are considered different in application, for my purposes, I consider graduates from either spectrum as subject-matter-experts and thus my targeted person-of-interest.
In other words, I am not just looking for a friend-of-a-friend but rather, for example, an Aerospace Quality Assurance Engineer with experience in electronic systems analysis for an RPAS project, an Aviation Structural Engineer specializing in Part 21 and STC approvals, an epidemiologist who has experience with Ebola, Cholera or Typhoid Fever viral transmissions in West Africa. Or, in one case, I was looking for a primatologist (or biologist) who studied baboons in Nigeria and Cameroun. In another example, I wanted to find a retired seaplane pilot who flew for Pan Am Airlines in Venezuela in the 1930s. Finally, in the case I am using for this article, I wanted to find someone who knows what happened to an abandoned, derelict aircraft in Manila.
Lockheed Super Constellation Manila Philippines
The Connectivity of the Internet doesn’t Influence Degrees of Separation
When you go online, you will read a lot about how the internet has facilitated the six degrees of separation into what we call the small-world syndrome. To clarify, the internet and the connectivity of the world wide web doesn’t have much to do with “degrees of separation.” Before the 19th Century, physical barriers separated people and cultures. Steamships and railroads transported canvas bags of letters and postcards across mountains, channels, continents and oceans. On the one hand, a message from London to Sydney, for example, took 3-4 months but still allowed direct person-to-person contact. Any two people on the planet could connect via mail. Direct mass communications, on the other hand, only took place within small groups, in setting such as on the theatre stage, in the house of parliament or on soapboxes in Hydes Park.
(I am not discounting the enormous impact of the printing press and the dissemination of leaflets, pamphlets and books. Those forms of material text media, however, are not direct person-to-person communication and are more like today’s social sharing platforms – Blogs, Twitter, Instagram – just with longer shelf lives.)
Six Degrees of Separation and the Shrinking World
The shrinking world or “small-world” idea started after WW1 when telegraph landlines, submarine telegraph cables and small airplanes enabled message and mail delivery services to provide quick and efficient access across the world.
Many pre-WWll airlines started up by delivering letters, parcels, medicine and supplies to the remote regions of Canada and Alaska as well as between cities, using the DeHavilland Tiger Moth, Fokker Universal, Fairchild 71C, Waco, Bellanca Aircruiser, Noorduyn Norseman and Beech 18. Although physical barriers and long distances with few or no roads still separated people, communication was quicker. My hometown, Lac du Bonnet, was one of the first floatplane bases established to deliver mail and supplies to the Northern communities of Manitoba, NE Ontario and the Arctic.
Lac du Bonnet Floatplane Base Bellanca and Norseman
Newly designed airliners, jet engines, fast trains, efficient roadways, and the interstate highways proliferated during the post-war boom to accommodate the growing passenger transportation requirements. The piston-engine prop-driven PBY Canso, DC-3, Lockheed Constellation and DC-4, and the prop-driven turbine-engine Vickers Viscount, Lockheed Super Constellation and Lockheed Electra were examples of the first passenger airplanes built for passenger comfort. They also had long lives hauling freight after the turbojet airliners, such as the B707, B727, BAC-1-11, DC-8, DC-9, and B737, replaced them.
PBY Canso at my home town dock loading mail and supplies before heading north.
Connected Not Separated
Despite the increase in speed and efficiency of “shrinking world” communications, the idea of using a friend of a friend to make an acquaintance was still based on the concept of six degrees of separation.
In 1973 with these great leaps forward in technology, but still, before the internet, MIT used an early computer to show that “three degrees of separation,” as opposed to six, was now realistic within continental America. The closed network and less stratified structure of American society made it feasible to find a person-of-interest through a friend of a friend of a friend, but it certainly didn’t work universally. What about worldwide connectivity?
In 2008 Microsoft tested the theory that “because we are all linked by chains of acquaintance, you are just six introductions away from any other person on the planet.” Since Microsoft Instant Messenger is a means of communication and not a social network in itself, the people using it had little or nothing in common to start with. Kind of like no two people using an iPhone would necessarily have anything in common other than that they both own an iPhone. Instant Messenger, however, was being used universally.
Microsoft researchers Jure Leskovec and Eric Horvitz discovered a 6.6 degrees of social separation between any two individuals by studying and filtering 255 billion online electronic messages. By using Instant Messenger, as opposed to Facebook or Twitter, they examined a “network of strong active ties” instead of “friends” or “followers” who are generally not communicating with each other. The concept of a “small-world” depends on two parties conversing directly and “knowing” each other to a higher degree.
Lac du Bonnet Floatplane Base 1950
Geographic Properties of Large-Scale Social Networks
The researcher’s initial interest was in “geographic properties of large-scale social networks” by analyzing the shortest paths (measured by the number of edges or links) between nodes – where “nodes” are significant clusters or hubs of people with similar interests within geographic boundaries. They found that paths lengthened when geographic distances between the nodes increased but that distancing could be negated by first navigating to high-degree hubs or groups. During the Arabic Spring Uprisings, for example, there were intense clusters of geosociopolitical communications within and between each dissenting country.
It was the era of the revolution down through the wires: time was collapsed and geography shrunk by the use of social networking. Colum McCann, New York Times.
In other words, by navigating toward known groups of like-minded individuals, i.e., resistance networks of dissident activists (geosociopolitical) or social networks of professional (professional/academic/subject-matter-expert) associations, you could shorten the number of links (or degrees of separation) needed to complete a search.
After narrowing the search by using these geosociopolitical or professional hubs, the next step toward “approaching the target” is much harder. They found that “less than 5% of node’s neighbours lead topologically toward the target.” But trying to find a person-of-interest within a relatively small group of collaborative dissidents, surgeons, epidemiologists, or Hollywood actors who had worked with Kevin Bacon, is a much smaller sample than trying to find a person-of-interest within 5% of the world’s billions of individuals.
By connecting like-minded-individuals into a small-world network, the idea of people being “separated” was giving way to the concept of people being “connected.”
The advent of the internet and world-wide-web, along with smart-phones, instant-messaging and associated apps, has exponentially strengthened this concept. Email, Microsoft Messenger and WhatsApp has not just allowed communications to jump to light speed, but it facilitated mass discussions on a scale never before imagined. The cc in emails, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WeChat, and Weibo connect hundreds, thousands or even millions of people in ways that soapboxes could never do in the 18th Century.
Abandoned Douglas DC3, Dakota
The Achilles Heel of Google, Facebook and LinkedIn Groups
Social networking programs or search engines, although they don’t shorten the “six degrees of separation” concept between random strangers, allow you to find a person-of-interest through Google or on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, for example, reasonably quick.
There is an Achilles Heel, however, to this strategy. Experiments on these social sharing sites have shown that users within each platform have between 4.54 and 3.88 degrees of separation. That is an improvement over 6.0 degrees but is still not 3.0 degrees. The person-of-interest must also be on the same specific social networking app you are using.
Also, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter connections are”weak” links because the individuals are mostly sharing and not necessarily communicating. A “strong” link or relationship is when two users are actively talking.
Plus, to find a person-of-interest on a Google or Bing search, they must be published (visible) in a way that allows spiders to crawl them and algorithms to store, organize and rank them. How many people do you know who are published and easily found via a Google search?
Beyond Connected Individuals
Zuckerberg designed Facebook to connect classmates, but that easily expanded to include family and friends, i.e., small groups with some connections – most of them not actually communicating but instead lazily sharing irrelevant unsourced memes and cute videos of cats being cats. Just because you know someone or have befriended them on Facebook does not mean you are like-minded or that you have a resilient common bond.
Facebook later added “groups” where like-minded people could share information or, in some cases, misinformation while forming stronger links. A group mediator would choose a theme and invite others to join. If you saw a group online that you liked, you could also request to join. Similar to LinkedIn, the goal is to find like-minded individuals or persons-of-interest and engage and share your interests, experiences, or aspirations with them. To communicate with other users, however, both parties must be a logged-in member, thus limiting the ability to participate with the more significant parts of the world-wide-web.
LinkedIn? I like my LinkedIn friends, but they are more amusing than useful.
LinkedIn goes a step further to determine what degree of separation you are from the person you are looking to meet, and if you are more than one degree, you have to be introduced. LinkedIn expects you to “link” or connect with your occupational peers. LinkedIn’s critical criteria is that you are not linked until you can communicate directly with that person. Thus, finding a person is not the same as being “connected” to them.
On LinkedIn, therefore, people in your network are called connections. Your 1st-degree, 2nd-degree, and 3rd-degree connections make up your network in addition to the fellow members of your LinkedIn groups. “The degree of connection you have with another member affects how you… [are allowed to] interact with them on LinkedIn.” The idea is that you do not have to end up with people you don’t know as long as you only accept invitations from LinkedIn members you do know. In other words, 1st-degree connections.
As long as you can remain aloof and do not accept pointless connections from people you don’t know, you can build a pretty strong coalition of connected individuals. For many years I have used LinkedIn Premium to expand my professional and business aviation alliance. Still, unfortunately, I have never gotten a single lead, job offer or contract through my 405+ connections. (A few individuals on LinkedIn have hired me in the past, but that was before LinkedIn.) And the few times I have contacted members for “learned” industry information, I have gotten nothing useful back. I like my LinkedIn friends, but they are more amusing than helpful.
Thus finding a person-of-interest on either LinkedIn or Facebook is not straight forward and doesn’t guarantee success. Of the 90 some classmates from my senior high school, I can guess that about six are on a social network, let alone, god forbid, on Facebook. That lowers the odds tremendously for me being able to put together a 50th anniversary of our graduation, for example. That also makes locating a specialized professional improbable, let alone establishing a link between random strangers.
Lockheed Super Constellation in Manila loving known as the “Connie.”
Associate of an Associate
It helps if the person looking and the person-of-interest are professionals or academics working within internationally connected fields such as aviation, medicine, law, astrophysics, engineering, paleontology or epidemiology; in other words, an associate of an associate. Someone always knows someone who knows…ok, you see where I am going with this. This is the “friend-of-a-friend” concept where you can directly ask an associate if they know a specific specialist in their field. They, in turn, ask an associate if they are familiar with anyone matching the person-of-interest.
Finding an associate of an associate sounds promising even though it still works like the “six degrees of separation.” The chances of success are much higher, however, because the asking takes place within a closed group of like-minded professionals with similar areas of interest. For example, all astrophysicists know other astrophysicists who would know others in their field. It shouldn’t take six tries to find a particular astrophysicist.
The difference between a friend-of-a-friend on Facebook and a friend-of-a-friend on LinkedIn or an associate of an associate between professionals is significant and essential to understanding new-age social connections. Friends of friends on Facebook can be, in your view, way out in left field (or right field), but you still have to put up with them unless you block them. So you block them, but your original friend reposts stupid memes from that blocked friend of a friend. Then you have to put up with their nonsense unless you also “unfriend” or even block your friend. Who is blocked, and who is connected gets complicated and messy. So you end with a private account or lots of blocked friends and blocked friends of friends. Where does it end?
Professional and Academic Associations
Professionals and academics, however, even if they are strangers, are required to be part of an association, institution, council or college if they want to pursue their occupation. In turn, the college or association must keep track of each member, and each member must keep in touch to remain relevant. Professionals are, moreover, bound by the scientific method and peer-review, where before any new research, theory, or practise can be deemed acceptable, they must pass the critical scrutiny, skeptical criticism, laboratory testing and scientific review of others in the profession. Professional standards are policed by national and international laws and regulated by tribunals, the judiciary and the law courts. All the interaction, interdependency and oversight makes it easier to track professionals such as doctors, lawyers, accountants, anesthesiologists, aeronautical engineers, and airline pilots or academics such as neuroscientists, epidemiologists, astrophysicists, nuclear physicists or sociobiologists.
Lockheed Super Constellation in Manila. Closeup of a beautiful “Connie.”
Finding an Associate of an Associate via Professional Networking
To get from six degrees of separation to three degrees of connection using professional and academic associations, however, is still tricky. For example, Facebook-to-Facebook and LinkedIn-to-LinkedIn groups do not achieve three degrees of connection. Therefore, neither should connections between differing professional associations. So what does? Let’s look at my case study.
Lloyd, an aviation data researcher from Aviation Heritage UK, contacted me to find Robert S. Grant, an aviation writer I featured on my aviation ebushpilot.com website 25 years ago. Lloyd started his search by Googling Robert’s name. Robert is an Air Transport Pilot license holder, an aviation subject-matter-expert, and a prolific “published” writer, and so 8 of the top 10 Google hits are either Amazon, Google or Goodreads selling his books. My website came up number one and number ten in the Google search. Not bad after 25 years. The other sites were resellers who wouldn’t know Robert Grant from Ulysses Grant, and so Lloyd correctly decided to contact me directly. Luckily I had regularly updated the email address on my “heritage” website.
Sadly I was a dead end. I had lost Robert’s email address, and he had moved several times. I tried Facebook and LinkedIn but, although he had registered many years ago, both his pages were dormant. I then tried an online “yellow pages” for his phone number at his last known town I knew he had either lived or worked at in Canada. I forwarded Lloyd a promising phone number, but unfortunately, the Robert Grant of Sault Ste Marie had never heard of the Robert S. Grant the writer. Robert was nowhere on my radar.
Lloyd decided to try another route. He posted on a British Aviation specific message board – an aviation-specific hub – called the Air-Britain Information Exchange.
“Since 1948, Air-Britain has been bringing together spotters, historians, aviation writers, pilots and photographers – all having a passion for aircraft and aviation.”
A Canadian member of the Air-Britain Information Exchange knew Robert and forwarded him Lloyd’s address. Robert answered Lloyd within minutes of his original posting. Lloyd, the researcher, without Facebook and or LinkedIn, accomplished his mission. That search was not six degrees of separation but much closer to three degrees of connection thanks to an association of aviation enthusiasts.
But that is not where this ends. I then wrote Lloyd back. Considering his background and link to the British/ANZAC aviation scene, I asked him, “BTY, do you know anyone at the Qantas Heritage Museum/Collection?? They bought a Connie in Manila but never finished shipping it home.”
Within minutes he replied, “This link will take you to its current state in Longreach, Queensland.”
Nearly four years after the Qantas Founders Museum acquired their Lockheed Super Constellation in Manila, Philippines, the external restoration of the aircraft to the original Qantas livery in Longreach is now complete. I would never have recognized my Connie.
Refurbished Lockheed Super Constellation in Australia
So How Do You Get to Three Degrees of Connectivity?
I had often pondered the fate and whereabouts of this Howard Hughes inspired aircraft that has sat so despondently in the weeds at the Manila Airport in the Philippines. I met the recovery team after they had bought the Connie and started preparing it for transport to Australia. But then they abandoned Manila for the rainy season. Later we moved our operation out of the airport, so if they came back to rescue the derelict, I never knew – until now.
Using the six degrees concept, anyone could write to a friend or acquaintance anywhere in the world and ask about a person-of-interest. That friend or acquaintance would most likely not know them but would know someone who might. That message keeps getting forwarded until the person-of-interest is found and contacted. This concept works the same for writing snail-mail long-hand letters, emails or Whatsapp messages. Modern social messaging apps make the process quicker but do not help in making person-of-interest searches more effective or efficient. So how do you get to three degrees of connectivity?
When using the one-size-fits-all social networks, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, I find that they are lacking. When I developed my bulletin/messaging/connectivity www.eBushPilot.com web site in the late ’90s, I targeted one small node or cluster of bush pilots, but ultimately I couldn’t make it work financially. It was great for bush pilots but not so good for someone trying to make a living as a moderator. Facebook took the opposite approach and opened itself to “everyone” in the entire world. Great for making money but not so good for connecting with hubs of like-minded individuals.
Facebook tried to fix that with Facebook Groups. Still, without either a broad base or a moderator with a system of rules of conduct to monitor behaviour, a Facebook connection is just a superficial “weak” link. Members are allowed to post inflammatory opinions, without any proof, evidence, credible sources, first-person witnesses, or critical peer review with no consequences other than possibly being blocked by the group administrator.
Within professional networking hubs, however, the fact that “each individual’s actions have implicit consequences (losing their jobs, positions, or funding) for the outcomes of everyone in the system” means that the links are resilient. Two people in a Facebook Group may have “flute-playing” in common but little else. At the same time, lawyers, doctors and astrophysicists tend to stay lawyers, doctors and astrophysicists, even if they quit playing the flute.
Instant Messenger, WhatsApp and Twitter, on the other hand, are all too widespread to be useful as sustainable networking (communication) hubs for connecting like-minded individuals. The Arab Spring unifying call for social action fell apart very quickly after the fires died down. So, where does this leave specialized professionals and subject matter experts?
Associations, Colleges, Councils, Institutes, Academies, and Societies
In most cases, professionals and academics will have already joined the relevant networking hubs of their professional associations, colleges, councils, institutes, academies, or societies immediately after completing their studies at an institution, university or college. These associations are the gateways and core hubs of each specific professional or academic network and the key to finding any particular person-of-interest.
Specialized professional networks provide conduits of communications via “the introduction of a few long-range edges,” i.e., shortcuts. The collective dynamics of small-world networks allow for these shortcuts to “connect vertices that would otherwise be much further apart…”
Professional “small-world” networks formed by associations, colleges, councils, institutes, academies, societies or even subject-matter-expert bulletin boards are the geocentric nodes or hubs of the knowledge-based web. For three degrees of connection to work, you would use such a specialized networking hub as the intermediate steppingstone – the short cut – for reaching out to your person-of-interest. For example, what hub do you use to find a Typhoid Fever expert to help solve an infectious disease transmission problem at your company’s gold mine in Malawi? In my case, I needed to connect with an aviation historian to discover who restored the missing 1950’s Super Constellation.
Lockheed Super Constellation in Australia
In summary, despite the internet and all the associated apps, your connection to a random stranger is still six degrees or more of separation unless you are both on Facebook or LinkedIn or possibly on a dating site. Then the odds are better that you can find something in common that may entice you to connect. But for the most part, who wants to meet up with a random stranger online? I may be old fashion, but I thought that is what bars are for…
What Sharing Platform Connects all the Associations, Colleges, Councils, Institutes, Academies, and Societies of the World? We need an app!
The problem is that we have not yet gone far enough to connect the world. Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram are all designed to make money and to do that they have to appeal to the ideas, beliefs, opinions, innovations, technologies, products, and social conventions of a significant number of consumers who’s values are continually emerging and evolving. Remember, numbers matter on the internet, but so do sustainable social practices. But what about knowledge? How do we share verifiable information? Facebook, Reddit and Twitter are overflowing with baseless opinions, outright lies and mind-numbing conspiracies, so for learning or acquiring new knowledge, they are totally unreliable.
We need a sharing platform that connects all the real, verifiable knowledge in the world. The kind of knowledge base that professionals and academics (neurosurgeons and astrophysicists) of all fields could contribute to and make use of. Since data has become the salt of the modern world and the data keepers are emperors, this might never happen. The world wide web and information connectivity will never be universal until all published knowledge is connected, searchable and free.
There are a few brilliant websites, such as the ResearchGate, that are on the right track with large knowledge-based networks and libraries, but still, they only offer a fraction of the world’s published data-based knowledge. A “universal” network would need to link all the associations, colleges, councils, institutes, academies, and societies of the professional world into a search accessible knowledge-based educational system. I’d nominate calling it The StarGate Network, but that name is already taken.
The programming, algorithms, subscription filtering, metadata content management, inference-learning blending, artificial intelligent integration and routing logistics to put this all together would be an enormous undertaking. The benefits for mankind, however, would be mind-altering. The only way for a worldwide knowledge-based network to happen is if a social revolution demands it. People who are tired of the bigoted, unsourced and offensive nonsense on the current social networking platforms must demand better. And better would be to connect all the professional small-world knowledge-based networks together via a new altruistic and benevolent universal social sharing platform.
Google be warned. Resistance is futile. The future is coming.
Hiroshima Japan – After the Blast
Finally, here are my steps toward reaching three degrees of connectivity:
- Google, Bing, Yahoo – make use of whatever search sites you trust. A good search site is your first hub, and the search is your first link. Using keywords, find all the relevant sites. The keywords are critical, but if you are a professional, subject matter expert or industry consultant, you would know your keywords. In my epidemiologist example, try searching the keywords in phrases. For example, try “professional association of epidemiologists,” or “epidemiologist studying typhoid fever in Malawi.” Find out who is conducting the research you are interested in and to which associations they belong.
- Contact or join the hub association, institution or subject-matter-expert message boards (such as the International Epidemiological Association, the Institute for Disease Modeling, or the WHO bulletin board). The search acts as one connection, and someone within that group would serve as the second connection to help you contact your epidemiologist person-of-interest. For many individuals, who are already networked through their profession, step one is superfluous.
- The association’s administration or even the expert’s published papers will provide the means to find and contact your person-of-interest.
These simple steps are how Lloyd found his person-of-interest.
- As a member of Air-Britain (The World’s leading organisation for aviation enthusiasts and historians) he posted a message on their Message Board.
- A member who knew the person-of-interest forwarded the message.
- The person-of-interest contacted Lloyd.
And that’s how I found my Connie in three steps. After Lloyd contacted me, I followed up with a question. In response, he forwarded me the link to Connie’s new home at the Qantas Founders Museum.
That was easy as one, two, three! No harder than refurbishing a ’50s Super Constellation.
For those of you interested in the Lockheed Super Constellation, check out these sites.
- The Lockheed Constellation – The Plane That Changed The World
- How the Constellation Became the Star of the Skies
- Ralph M. Pettersen’s Constellation Survivors Website
Keywords: Decentralized search, network navigation, networks, small-world, social search, six degrees, Lockheed Constellation, Super Constellation, small-world, six degrees of separations, network hubs, Facebook Groups, LinkedIn Groups, epidemiologist, aviation expert, aviation, nuclear medicine, astrophysics, chemical engineering, paleontology, nodes, edges, Norseman, #pilotblogbook
Existing knowledge-based networks:
For excellent reading on social networks, including the featured essay by Athina Karatzogianni have a look at this compilation on Google Books. Digital World: Connectivity, Creativity and Rights, including the featured essay by Athina Karatzogianni.