How to connect: the friendship paradox and 5 degrees of separation


The Paradox

The friendship paradox states that, you have less friends than the average person in your network.  Boston College students aren’t very comfortable with being below average.  Don’t feel bad.  Most people, and by most I mean nearly everyone, are in this below-average group.  Why?

When trying to understand a concept, it often helps to presuppose the extreme case.  Let’s say you’re in a network with 500 people on Instagram and another 2000 people that you know, even if you don’t have their email and phone numbers in your smart phone.  Let’s say that 2498 people in your network have a similar number of connections, like you.  Let’s also say that one of those 2500 people happens to be a social connecting phenomenon who has 10,000 people in their network.  Maybe they are in sales or are at the top of a multi-level marketing pyramid, and their job is to build their network.  2499 people are therefore below average, since super network person pulled the average up.


It’s a small world

The average degrees of separation between any two Facebook users in 2011 within the USA was 4.3, and on the worldwide Facebook network it was 4.7 (Ugander: The Anatomy of the Facebook Social Graph, 2011).  In a 1967 Harvard study, using mail and the personal contact list, the median degrees of separation was 5.

An average professional person’s list of direct contacts is 3500, making the total 2nd degree contacts 12,250,000.  Using this math and assuming average direct connections of all citizens is 1000, the number of degrees between any 2 people in the USA is 2  (Pool and Kochen: Contacts and Influence 1978).
What does this mean for your life?

Studies show that people with a strong network of friends are happier, healthier, and live longer.  If you are dating, more friends will increase the likelihood that you will be introduced to a potential date who your friends think is a good match for you.

As a job seeker, should you spend time posting your resume on a job site, with low single digit response rate, when you have over 12,000,000 second degree contacts who could get your resume on the short list of job candidates?

As a hiring manager, should you spend your time posting jobs on a job site, when you could have a personal recommendation from someone you know or a second degree contact, who wants to maintain reputation within the network with only honest, accurate recommendations?

Looking for Friends or Dates?

Should you spend your social time trying to meet people in the busiest bar nearest your home and hope for the best luck, or should you put yourself into association with people who are passionate about the same things you are (share your values) and are desiring same kinds of new connections as you?


Successful Networking in-person, by Christopher Barrat-TEDx

Should you wander aimlessly without a strategy or plan, inviting people to connect as you spontaneously cross paths, or should you put yourself into environments where spontaneous connection will happen with people you think will make connections that benefit you?

Parting Advice for Your Professional Network

Wayne Baker (Networking Smart: How to build relationships for personal and organizational success) says the following:

Don’t become a glad-handing nuisance (or social media nuisance).  Become more aware of the networking potential in every situation.  Volunteer to take assignments in other departments at work, attend social events, attend conferences, management seminars, trade shows.  The main goal is to educate yourself, learn a new skill, or contribute in some way.  The by-product goal is to meet diverse people from diverse groups who can be a bridge to new networks.  Don’t leave your professional network to chance.  Target groups and people with influential roles by joining industry associations.




  1. Nice post. This is actually the type of research that got me into social media to begin with.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Prof Kane. It’s hard to wrap my mind around the implication that we are that connected.

  2. emmaharney21 · ·

    This is a really interesting post. It reminds me of some of the content that we looked at in the beginning of the semester. It is nice to look back at these core concepts with more experience under our belts. I think that this theory is what makes social media so powerful. The fact that the entire world is 5 degrees of separation away is incredible. This fact also has an unbelievable amount of potential attached to it.

    I found this article It talks about the degrees of separation but also mentions that on average we are 6 degrees away. It specifies that some people like Sheryl Sandberg are 2.92 degrees of separation away from everyone. I am not exactly sure how this is calculated but it reminds me about Klout scores. There is a way to measure exactly how social you are, how connected you are. It is interesting that we are starting to measure this and even making the information available for the individual (Klout Scores).

    I appreciated looking back at this concept after learning so much this semester. I have an even greater respect for the social media networking power now! Thanks for posting this.

    1. Thanks for your interesting comment , Emma
      Your comment about potential is apt; it’s hard to wrap my mind around. I’m going to read your article link- thanks!

  3. alinacasari · ·

    Really interesting and informative post! I am always shocked when I find a random mutual friend with someone I meet in a completely different context from how I know the mutual friend. For example, my freshman year at BC while on a bus I met someone who studied abroad and lived in the same tiny (like seriously tiny) town as me in France who knew one of my friends from high school in Paris. These connections always seem shocking initially, but they always remind me of how small the world really is.

    It’s kind of crazy to consider the degrees of separation between the world today and what that implication is now and for the future. I completely agree that there is networking potential in most situations. Why not ask connections to help you get a job when we all have so many potential connectors? In the past few months I’ve noticed a lot of my networks overlapping- At a high school reunion that was hosted in Boston I met someone who went to my school in Paris but married a BC grad. So with this one couple, I had many overlapping connections because we run in multiple similar circles. I know I tend to seek out like-minded people as connections, who then introduce me to more like-minded people, and so on. In terms of dating and job searches, this seems like something that is extremely beneficial and allows us to better and more easily target what we are searching for. Great post!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Alina. I agree with you about asking your connections for introductions for job prospecting. The small world phenomenon blows my mind sometimes.

  4. It’s interesting because the idea behind having the five degrees of separation didn’t initiate out of social media, yet it has so many social media implications. I definitely agree that those professional networks are going to be a lot stronger if you share them with those who have the same values and goals as yourself. I’m currently taking another class right now called Organizational Behavior where we discussed the degrees of separation. What’s interesting is that having those wider networks also provides great value because you are able to get in a more diverse set of opinions and are able to interact with people from different backgrounds. I personally would rather have a tighter knit group, but that’s not to say that being someone with a wide set of personal connections should be considered anything less. Great post – thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for your comment. Good point about the diverse perspectives gained from the larger network.

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