Degrees of Separation

Is the world getting more connected or more fragmented? Facebook, in conjunction with the University of Milan, recently announced that there were only 4.74 "degrees of separation" among its 700 million users (representing 10% of the world's population). That contrasts with the famous six degrees that Yale researcher Stanley Milgram found back in the 1960's. Social media, we're to believe, are bringing people closer together.

Of course, I have 336 "friends" on Facebook, most of whom I've never met outside a chat room. My son has 873. So despite the ballyhoo from Facebook, I have doubts that computers are building the kind of relationships that count.

A study published in the American Sociological Review in 2004 found that a quarter all Americans say they have no one they can talk to about important matters, and that number more than doubled from an similar study done twenty years before. Imagine, not having a single confidante. It just confirms the thesis of Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, that we're becoming more socially isolated, even as the world gets more wired.

In fact, the phrase "online community" may be an oxymoron, like "Amtrak schedule" or "airline food." This past summer, researchers at the University of Wisconsin put teenage girls in stressful situations, like solving mental arithmetic problems, meanwhile measuring the girls' levels of cortisol, a bio-marker for stress, and oxytocin, a hormone associated with feelings of well-being and trust. During the test, the teens were permitted either to text their mothers, or to call mom on the phone. It turned out that the phone conversation, and the soothing tone of mother's voice, lowered stress levels in the girls. Texting had no such effect.

The study just confirms my own prejudices. Call me retro, but I still prefer chatting with a real live person on the telephone, rather than interacting with a voice-mail robot. The world has gained in efficiency and cost-savings, but lost a dimension that's warm and comforting.

It appears that we need an actual human presence--the shelter of each other--to feel whole. There's no digital substitute for a hug, a handshake or a smile. This is one role that religious institutions play in our culture, as well as civic organizations and bowling leagues. Of course, merely attending a church, mosque or synagogue doesn't automatically mean you feel known and accepted. You still have to do the work of building caring bonds. But at least meaningful relationships are possible in congregations and similar affinity groups in a way that cyberspace just won't allow.

How much of the vulgarity of American culture is due to the fact that we've become a nation of strangers? How much of the incivility in our politics can be traced to the breakdown of respectful person-to-person communication? The good news is that the cure for this malady is readily available. Through everyday acts of kindness, and by reaching out to others in a spirit of helpfulness and cooperation, we can begin to re-weave the fabric of community.

Indeed, the mathematical algorithms that measure "degrees of separation" across the planet show that when we reach outside our personal comfort zone, for example to encounter someone from a different race, a different religion, or a different political viewpoint, our actions have a multiplier effect. One person who breaks through ghettos of privilege and prejudice can lower the level of global estrangement, much more than you might predict.

But perhaps you didn't need a university study or a mathematical analysis to tell you what the world's religions have affirmed for centuries. The best way to bring our world closer together--to lower the degree of separation and strife--is the old-fashioned way, though charity and compassion, by practicing patience and tolerance and goodwill, turning strangers into friends and enemies into conversation partners, one by one by one.