BY: SUJIN OH | DECEMBER 22, 2013
To start, in sociology, studying social networks is analyzing the links and relationships between people. There are some foundational concepts to know when it comes to understanding social networks in an academic sense. One fundamental notion is a tie, an abstract, technical term to refer to a relationship between two people. Derived from this basic concept are weak, strong, and random ties. Weak ties are essentially acquaintances—people who may be in your social circle but you don’t talk to much one-on-one. Strong ties are people you know closely, such as your best friends and family. Random ties are people who don’t know each other and are in different cliques, but still have some chance of forming a relationship (e.g. through a group project in class, an extracurricular activity, dating, etc.).
Now referring back to the movie, Yolki broadly consists of two social network ideas: “degrees of separation” and “small world phenomenon.” The idea of “degrees of separation” is that networks with relatively weak ties can allow for exponential growth and optimal information diffusion. While the former concept was first developed by Frigyes Karinthy in his 1929 short story, Chains (Láncszemek), this idea became an integral part of the study of social networks in Stanley Milgram’s 1967 experiment of the small world problem. Milgram and other researchers devised an experiment to better understand the small world problem and to test out the idea of degrees of separation. The experiment was to have individuals from different parts of the U.S. deliver a book by mail to a random person (given basic information) named by the researchers. Each individual was told to send the book to someone who was more likely to know the named person than him or herself (e.g. someone within the same state or city as the random person or someone who may have connections to others in that state or city). Over the course of three years, Milgram found that of the trials that succeeded, it took an average of about five to eight connections to deliver the books. Milgram also found that the experiment worked better when using acquaintances rather than close relationships as connections. This in turn revealed the potential power and effectiveness of weak ties. On the other hand, almost counter-intuitively, this revealed the limitations of information diffusion when networks are established using only strong ties. Today’s popular six degrees of separation, analogous to the small world phenomenon, is a close solution to the small world problem.
Similar to the Milgram experiment, Yolki tracks the journey of a message starting from a young boy in Western Russia to the President on the opposite side of the country through the utilization of weak ties which creates an extensive network across the entire country on a geographical and socially hierarchical span. While I do not delve into much detail here regarding social networks, we can all practice micro-level sociology by observing the various social ties we have with our friends, coworkers, and classmates. Sociologists who study social networks seek to better understand these social ties and how they work in the society we live in today.
If you would like to watch this heart-warming film and observe the sociological aspects of the plot you can view it with English subtitles via YouTube here.
Also, if the academic component of this post is of any interest to you, check out Sociology 111 (Social Networks) in the upcoming quarters! Note: My definitions of terminology have come from notes taken from Soc. 111 during summer 2013 with instructor Dr. Noah Grand.