Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Six Degrees of Separation: Politics in the Information Age

The current political phenomenon in Korea, involves a mediated frenzy that is being whipped up with the aid of new information an communication technologies, notably the internet and mobile phones. This suggests to me that South Korea, which has internet and mobile communication infrastructures unequalled in the world, also has certain cultural characteristics that accentuate the political impact of these communication technologies.
One of the interesting findings from research on human communication networks is the so-called "six degrees of separation." It refers to the idea that, if a person is one step away from each person he or she knows and two steps away from each person who is known by one of the people he or she knows, then everyone is an average of six "steps" away from each person on Earth. This idea has its origins in the 1960s experiments of American psychologist Stanley Milgram. The concept has since accumulated an impressive amount of empirical evidence or "proof." One of the more interesting studies "proving" the concept was published in June of 2007, based on data from everyone in the world who used the MSN "instant messaging" service. In a research paper from June 2007, titled "Worldwide Buzz: Planetary-Scale Views on an Instant-Messaging Network (PDF)," Eric Horvitz of Microsoft Research and Jure Leskovec of Carnegie Mellon University analyzed 30 billion conversations among 240 million people using Microsoft Instant Messenger in June 2006. It turned out that the average path length, or degree of separation, among the anonymized users probed was 6.6.
The relevance of this to the current political upheaval in South Korea? Politics here are based on interpersonal communication networks. Family, hometown, school and regional associations are of paramount importance in Korea. Modern communication networks such as the internet and mobile phones amplify the speed and scope of interpersonal communication in part because of "six degrees of separation." This phenomenon has also been dubbed "smart mobs." Middle and high school students use mobile-phone-based instant messaging and internet bulletin boards to share ideas about importation of American beef, and to organize candlelight protests that draw tens of thousands in Seoul and other large Korean cities. Korea's homogeneous culture and the importance of networking with friends and associates seems to be creating a strong new political dynamic in the information age. With only six degrees of separation, information spreads more rapidly through the new digital networks, creating candlelight vigils in which sixty percent or more of the participants were reportedly middle and high school students.

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