Sobig’sSmall World

They come from France, the Netherlands, Brazil, and across the United States. Some are in languages I don’t even recognize. For days and days they’ve kept coming, and their numbers are substantial. I’m talking, of course, about the various email messages generated by computers infected with the Sobig.F worm and the outrageous number of “Undeliverable Mail” and “Your Computer May Have a Virus!” messages that have clogged the Internet in recent days.

No, this isn’t another column about the worm. It’s about a characteristic of the worm, and many other computer viruses, that got me thinking. Experts say Sobig.F propagates by using email addresses on the infected computer. It sends copies of itself to some of these addresses and uses others as spoofed sender addresses. If that’s really the case, then every one of the thousands of message I’ve gotten is “from” someone who’s connected to me in some way.

The connection could be as tenuous as someone who once read my column. My email address (which appears in my byline) resides on the Web page in his temporary Internet files. In such a case, the virus or bounce message would come from someone equally removed from my personal sphere. Alternately, the infected computer could belong to my husband or my best friend. Either way, it’s a connection. These connections comprise a society.

As marketers, it’s interesting to take a step back from the daily grind (especially in the summer!) and think about big-picture questions. Sobig.F got me thinking about who marketers are trying to reach — including myself. They’re people with friends and family and neighbors and acquaintances. Understanding how they’re connected, and how they get the information that informs their purchase decisions, has resulted in applications and tactics that range from viral marketing to search and beyond.

This thinking led to two current efforts to uncover the mysteries behind social connections and social search. The Small World Project is based at Columbia University. The Electronic Small World Project is going on at Ohio State University. Each takes a different approach to exploring the “six degrees of separation” idea: Everyone in the world is connected to each other within six degrees.

The concept, first extensively tested by Harvard researcher Stanley Milgram in the late 1960s, has been explored online before. It began with a site called SixDegrees.com in 1996 and experienced a renaissance recently with the growth of Friendster and similar sites, such as Ryze, ZeroDegrees, Visible Path, and Ringo.com.

The Columbia experiment, now in phase two, involved a global audience of 60,000 email users. These people were asked to reach 1 of 18 people in 13 countries solely via their own social networks. They had to forward messages to people they knew personally, who would then forward the messages to people they knew personally. Targets included a life insurance agent in Omaha, Nebraska; a potter in Katikati, New Zealand; and an archival inspector in Tallinn, Estonia. Out of 24,163 chains only 384 reached their targets, largely because people dropped out of the chains. Perhaps they thought the email was spam or didn’t have time to participate.

Key findings:

  • When researchers considered both messages that did and didn’t get through, they concluded social searches can reach their targets in a median of five to seven steps. The “six degrees” theory seems to hold.

  • Successful searches were more likely to use weaker links between people who didn’t know each other all that well.
  • When they considered to whom they should forward messages, people didn’t consider “having lots of friends” as important as researchers initially expected.
  • Successful searches more often relied on professional relationships.
  • People’s perceptions of whether a search would succeed affected their likelihood to participate. A college professor in New York received 44 percent of all completed chains, a student in Croatia received very few. “People could imagine themselves connecting to the professor,” said Professor Duncan Watts, one of the researchers, “and they were more willing to try.”

In addition to providing insight into how people are connected, the study sheds light on how people solve problems.

“We want to delve into [problem solving] more than whether people are connected or not,” said Watts. “We’re interested in how people use their social resources to network and solve ambiguous problems. Because people are so much better at that than computers are… and we’re better when we do it collectively than when we do it individually.”

Online, search engines are portals to problem-solving. Enter a query, and you’re presented with a vast array of solutions (or results). The Columbia research may eventually help train computers (i.e., paid search algorithms) to solve more ambiguous problems. Potential result? More relevant ads served.

The Ohio State experiment is in its early stages, but it appears to be most relevant for those interested in viral marketing (and computer viruses), as it focuses on close relationships.

“Our study takes a ‘shallow-but-broad’ approach. Each initial respondent tells us about many of their close contacts, and each of those people tells us about many of their contacts, so our sample fans out to a broad set of people ,” said Dr. James Moody, who heads the study. “We purposefully ask about close personal relations (as opposed to weak ties), because we are interested in the types of things that can flow through such relations. You wouldn’t open an [email] attachment from somebody you don’t know very well, for example, so self-propagating viruses are more likely to flow through these kinds of strong-tie networks.”

Interestingly, the Columbia group first tried to use a rented list of email addresses to recruit participants in the study, but they garnered less than a 0.5 percent response rate. The email effort, however, resulted in “considerable global media coverage.” That in turn enabled the current strategy — registration at a Web site — to succeed. Hmmm…. just another of those curious phenomena that got me thinking this summer.

Hope you’ve had a great one and that you close it with a bang this Labor Day holiday!

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