Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Six Degrees of Linked In

A while back, when I was seriously looking for full-time work, I took a friend's advice and joined Linked In.  Supposedly this would allow me to connect with all the high-powered people in my background who were panting to find me a new job.  Sadly, the high-powered people in my background are now mostly retired or dead, and the few that are on Linked In don't want to be bothered.  I haven't deleted my profile, though, because it has allowed a few old friends I'd lost touch with to find me.  Now, however, it's starting to weird me out.

One of the features of Linked In is that it sends you little messages asking whether you know certain people and would like to connect with them.  Usually the software's rationale for recommending someone is pretty clear - that person is a former co-worker, for example.  I was startled a couple of months back when my former brother-in-law popped up at the top of the list; I hadn't heard from or of him in about 20 years.  I can understand why the algorithm made the connection, though; we're the same age and went to the same high school and the same college.

This week the recommendations have been a little creepier.  One is a woman from my book club.  The club is the only connection I'm aware of between us and that isn't mentioned in either of our profiles.  I guess you could say that we are both adjunct university faculty living in the Phoenix metro area, but we work for totally unrelated schools, teach completely different subjects, and live on opposite sides of the Valley.  The other recommendation that startled me is my cousin who lives in Scottsdale.  She and I are related through our mothers, so we've never had the same last name; we aren't the same age, never went to any of the same schools, and our career paths had nothing in common.  We were both born in South Dakota and now live in Arizona - is that enough for the software to theorize a connection?

My best guess is that Linked In uses an algorithm based on "six degrees of separation" and is checking for friends of friends of friends in its records.  Somewhere in the murk of the Linked In database is a friend of my cousin who also knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows me.  I hope.  Otherwise, Big Brother may actually be watching.

"A fascinating game grew out of this discussion. One of us suggested performing the following experiment to prove that the population of the Earth is closer together now than they have ever been before. We should select any person from the 1.5 billion inhabitants of the Earth—anyone, anywhere at all. He bet us that, using no more than five individuals, one of whom is a personal acquaintance, he could contact the selected individual using nothing except the network of personal acquaintances." ~Frigyes Karinthy, Chain-Links

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