Monthly Archives: January 2008

Obama using viral marketing in S. Carolina

“Cyber Stumping” (Direct, 2/1/08) reported on an interesting activation of viral marketing at Barack Obama’s Columbia, SC December event with Oprah Winfrey. The 30,000 attendees in the football stadium at Obama’s request texted their cell numbers to the campaign to get mobile campaign alerts and then each called four numbers on the back of their tickets to urge them to vote Obama in the primary.

Brian Quinton (the author) lauds this as a way “to data-mine a live event” and get 120,000 campaign calls made on the bills of the attendees. He notes that it enabled the Obama campaign to skirt governmental limits on calls to mobile phones by campaigns.

As effective as this was, one wonders whether they shouldn’t have merged information on where these rally attendees lived with campaign lists of uncommitted voters in their neighborhoods to give them names of neighboring South Carolinians to persuade.  Under the theory that friends persuading friends is more effective than strangers persuading friends;  that after all is what social capital is all about.

The *Direct* article also talks about campaign effort to make their online presence more interactive and integrated with their offline presence. “[M]ost candidates are using the Internet to spin their speeches and appearances in near-real time. Hillary Clinton introduced the “Fact Hub” rapid-response page of her Web site just in time to defuse a story that her campaign had stiffed a Boone, IA, diner waitress….Both parties also have embraced social networks, Democrats more so than Republicans. By mid-December, Barack Obama had joined every social net from MySpace and Facebook to LinkedIn (for business professionals) and niche sites such as, (for Hispanics),, (for gays and lesbians) and (for non-denominational Christians). Last February his campaign also launched its own social net,, to help early supporters find each other and to raise cash.” But Obama is being sophisticated in some ways: “Even before December’s Oprah tour, Obama event attendees were asked to fill out contact information. In the case of the Oprah rallies in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, those phone numbers were added to the candidate’s house list immediately. Attendees got a call from a staffer within 48 hours of the event thanking them for their support and asking for a pledge to vote for Obama in the upcoming primary.”

6 degrees of separation now 4.74 on Facebook [REVISED 4/12/12]


A 2011 examination by Facebook and the University of Milan of all 721 million Facebook users (over 10% of the world’s population) found that Facebook users were less than five degrees of separation from anyone else. “While 99.6 per cent of all pairs of users are connected by paths with five degrees (six hops), 92 per cent are connected by only four degrees (five hops)” and was even lower if the searcher and the target lived in the same country.  As more users get onto Facebook, the degrees of separation are dropping; the average was 5.28 three years ago and is 4.74 today.  See studies “The Anatomy of the Facebook Social Graph” and “Four Degrees of Separation“.  [Of course, as many users of Facebook know who get “friended” by people who are not their friends or whom they have never met, this 4.74 degrees of separation no doubt includes a lot of “friends” along with real ones and this pushes down this theoretical level of interconnectedness that the researchers found.]

This runs against the grain of other work that has cast doubt on the “6 degrees of separation” theory for the population as a whole.  NPR had an interesting discussion on Talk of the Nation (January 25, 2008) regarding whether it is true that we really are no more than 6 degrees of separation apart from anyone on the planet. They invited on Judith Kleinfeld and Steven Strogatz (a professor in network theory).

Background: “6 degrees of separation” got its conception from a study by Stanley Milgram in the 1950s testing how many links it took to connect a random mid-Westerner from Omaha or Wichita with a random person from Boston. The study seemed to show that subjects were on average 6 path links away from each other. [Each recipient of a letter was supposed to send to the target recipient if he/she knew the target directly, or forward on the person who the subject thought would be most likely to know the target; this procedure was iterated and the number of links were totaled.] The Milgram methodology has been criticized by some. This has been generalized into the claim that any two people in the world are 6 degrees separated, although Milgram never used the phrase ‘degrees of separation’ and he only showed that the median chain link was 5.5 not that all chain lengths were 6 or less.  Some links took as many as 12 links although it is possible that in reality there were much shorter links possible.] . The ‘6 degrees notion’ was recently tested in a Small World experiment by Duncan Watts at Columbia which has found an average path length of worldwide volunteers of five, although there are some problems with their methodology (since they only took volunteers who might have volunteered because they wanted to test whether they were as cosmopolitan and as well-connected as they believed).

Note: Albert-Laszlo Barabasi  in his interesting book Linked reveals that Milgram had a Hungarian father and a Romanian mother and notes that in 1929 a very famous Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy wrote a story entitled “Lancszemek” (or “Chains”) in which a member of a group proposed a test to show that the world’s people were closely connected: he bet that through at most five acquaintances any of the then 1.5 billion inhabitants of the earth could be linked.  While it is unclear whether Milgram ever read this story, his Hungarian lineage suggests that perhaps through his father he might have heard of this first known conjecture of “five degrees of separation.”

Kleinfeld, in trying to digitally recreat Milgram’s experiment, found problems with the experiment (detailed in the current issue of Discover magazine with the wonderful title “If Osama’s only 6 degrees of separation away, why can’t we find him?“) Among them were that Milgram only counted the path length of the letters that actually reached their recipients, not the majority of letters that never reached them.  (Kleinfeld notes that only 3 of 60 letters reached their target in Milgram’s original study and the following study had a completion rate of only 29%.) Strogatz admits that this was a problem that Milgram was aware of and observed  that it is challenging to figure out how to interpret the letters that didn’t make it to the final person since it could be that one of the intervening links simply didn’t forward on the letter rather than the fact that the path length would have been much longer if completed.  [Kleinfeld in the article suggests that the fact that Milgram recruited participants by buying mailing lists skewed the partiicpants to be more high-income.  Because most American friendships are same-class, it is easier sociologically much easier for high-income subjects to find high-income targets than if the experimenta; subject  had to locate a target of a different economic class.]

The low completion rates also mirror some results Duncan Watts got in his Small World experiment. Recruiting volunteers on the web globally to see how many links separated them, Watts et al. began 24,163 “degree of separation” experiments. Only 384 of these were completed (or about 1.5%), and those completed had an average path length of slightly over 4 links.  Watts surveyed respondents who dropped out of the experiment and fewer than one in 200 respondents indicated that they didn’t continue the chain because they didn’t know whom to send it to.  This tends to support the notion that the completed links may not be different than the uncompleted ones in total path length but in the interest of the intervening links to complete the experiment.

Strogatz notes that this research really raises 3 interesting questions. First, “given two people, is there a short path connecting them? That is a question of existence. Does a chain exist? The second question has to do with search. Can people find these short paths if they exist? And a third question is, … even if the paths did exist and people could find them, could they use them to exert any influence on a person at the distant end?” Strogatz notes that regardless of any imperfections in Milgram’s approach, short paths definitely do exist, and people if motivated can find these paths. But he said that the issue of one’s leverage at six degrees of separation is much more doubtful.

Strogatz also discussed evidence of this “small world” in other settings and some ideas of how this might be used.

As to the answer about finding Osama bin Laden, Watts indicates that agents in the CIA probably are less than 6 degrees separated from Osama bin Laden, but because of tribal loyalties or threats of being killed, the last two links that could connect us to Osama, are not cooperative.

For the full NPR program, click here.

See related blog post “Make that at least 7 degrees of separation.”

Social capital in campaigns: Huckabee’s victory & Obama’s bounce

Social capital is dominant in campaigns, with two recent examples in the last week.

An interesting Op-Ed in the NYT by Mark Mellman and Michael Bloomfield, “Loose Lips Win Elections” (1/6/08) discussed fact that Huckabee’s victory over Mitt Romney last week in the Iowa Caucuses demonstrated that conversations (social capital) are more effective than advertising in getting individuals elected. Mellman and Bloomfield noted that Romney outspent Huckabee on advertising by a 6:1 ratio, but Huckabee’s campaign motivated lots of more efficacious parishioner-to-parishioner conversations through church networks urging fellow congregants to vote for Huckabee.

And “Why Iowa? Sociologist says it’s groupthink ; Voters elsewhere play follow the leader” (Jonathan Tilove, Times-Pacyune, 1/5/08) notes that Obama’s bounce post Iowa exhibits a social dimension. The press post-Iowa tell a revisionist story that makes Barack seem like the invincible and wise candidate, and then, assuming he wins NH (and the polls now show Obama with a recent double digit lead over Hillary Clinton), this story becomes all the more compelling and believable. “Why? Because ultimately, for all the talk about voting being a private act, it is in fact a social act in which individual behavior is hugely dependent on the thinking and actions of others….Duncan Watts, a Columbia University sociologist and principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research, has studied the phenomenon. As he explains, sooner or later in the primary process voters find themselves thinking less and responding to the cues of others more, under the assumption that ‘all these other people can’t be wrong.’…”

This social cascade overwhelms individual judgment and consideration. And history shows that the candidate that has won NH and Iowa, while they may not have won the general election, have never failed to win their party’s nomination.

That’s one reason why the NYT and others have been calling for a regional primary where the first states in a region would be rotated so that Iowa and NH don’t take on this disproportionate influence.

Watts and colleagues have documented something I wrote about earlier (viral popularity). They showed in a 2006 study in Science that “early deciders — like voters in Iowa and New Hampshire — have a profound power to get the snowball rolling” and hence influence later voters. “Watts and his colleagues created a music Web site and asked 14,000 participants to listen to a series of songs and rate them. Some were asked to rate without knowing others’ picks, while the rest were divided into discrete groups in which they knew the choices being made by others in their group. The groups that knew about other members’ ratings came up with different choices, and in each the most popular songs were rated much higher overall because ratings were influenced by members who had chosen earlier.” Part of this result, as was seen in Huckabee’s Iowa vote is the results of a huge number of cascading conversations, where every NH conversation in a book group, or PTA meeting, or Rotary group starts to change some voters in favor of the Iowa victor (in this case Obama), and the power of that influence is magnified over the days.