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Facebook Enters Academia

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We have all heard the famous 6 Degrees of Separation theory. Is it possible that Facebook and modern society changes what has been assumed as true for the past almost hundred years?

Even though the theory was born in 1929, the first experimental study was done by Mr. Stanley Milgram in the 1960s. The scientist asked the participants to get in touch with a concrete individual. If they knew the subject they could write directly, but if that was not the case they had to find another way to do it thorugh common acquaintences. The result was an average of 5.2 people, meaning that there were 6 steps to doing so. Without a doubt in Facebook these steps could be less.

This, they say, does not mean that now we are more connected, although the study was done with the more than 720 million active Facebook users – 10 % of the world population. Thus, in Facebook they have discovered that the average separation in 99,6% of the cases is 5 steps (6 degrees) but in 92% of the cases it is only 4 steps (5 degrees). This means that whichever random person you chose, a friend of a friend would be a friend of a friend of theirs.

The most interesting part is that there are several paradoxes. On one side, even though the results show a strong connection on an international level, it is also certain that most of the relations are local (84% of the connections are between users of the same country).
So, can we say we are more connected? Yes… and no… The two studies, one done in 1960s and the one done today are not comparable. Without a doubt, Facebook has been the reason to reduce the average number of steps to establish a connection with whoever in the world. This number has been reduced from 5.28 in 2008 to 4.74 nowadays. Further, there is an increase of the number of users and every one of them serves as a connection with a great number of people. The average, according to the social network itself, is 190, while the median is 100.

And here is the second paradox – it is very common that users have less contacts than their contacts. In fact in 84% of the cases, the average of the number of friends of their friends is bigger than the friends of the user himself. This phenomenon has been studied several times and is explained by the fact that for something to be popular (whether a person or a product) it needs to be more ¨elected¨ by the rest in the same network. Thus, when chosing a friend (or a product) there is a probability that it is popular and thereafter, that they have more contacts (fans).

For some academic studies on the subject you can check out:
The Anatomy of the Facebook Social Graph
or
Four Degrees of Separation

Further studies play with the notion that Facebook does alter our brains and makes them function differently. Actually there are even some studies that speculate that Facebook makes us smarter. Here is some of the reasoning

There are three types of friends on Facebook:
1. Those you talk to often and occasionally go out together
2. Those which you used to have some sort of relationship with and although you do not share anything anymore you are still hooked up through the web
3. Those whom when you see you ask yourself: ¨And what the hell are they doing in my friends´list?¨ (probably the largest group).

And if having a lot of friends on social networks was related with the brain development? In this case more than one (all those compulsive ¨add friend¨ clickers) would be on their way to become the next Einstein.

The scientists from the University College London (UCL) have been able to discover a direct relationship between the number of friends online an individual has and the size of some areas in their brain.

The researchers scanned and studied the brains of 125 university students all active Facebook users. They found a close relationship between the number of friends that each student has and the amount of gray matter in the amygdale, the superior temporal sulcus, the middle temporal rotation and the entorhinal cortex.

They also found that the thickness of the gray matter in the amygdale depends on the number of friends in real life, while the other sections appeared to be related exclusively to online friends. The ultimate goal of the experiment was do determine if the brain structure changes over time due to the usage of internet, i.e.

CAN THE INTERNET CHANGE OUR BRAIN?!

Mr. Manuel Martin-Loeches, a Spanish neuroscientists, assumes the validity of the study and concludes that it is quite acceptable and expectable that the more information the brain needs to process the more it will need to prepare for the challenge.

On the other hand, science journalist John Scaliter says¨Scientists themselves say they do not know if they found a relationship or a cause. Whether brain areas are larger because they have more friends, or they have more friends because their brains are larger¨.

Further it´s not only a matter of how many friends you have on Facebook but also the depth of the relationship that you maintain with them. Loeches clarifies: ¨The more personal relationship you have with your friends, the more it affects the brain. Even if you have thousands of people in your online community yet you communicate with just a few, it would be these few that would affect your brain.¨

Only time will show whether or not scientists have truly found a relationship between the size of our brain and its development and our participation in social networks. Furthermore, it just does not seem probable that hours of gossiping and stalking of our contacts on Facebook are going to help us become the prodigies of tomorrow.

For academic studies on the subject you can check:
Online social network size is reflected in human brain structure

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