The small-world effect is a modern phenomenon

Seth A. Marvel, Travis Martin, Charles R. Doering, David Lusseau, M. E. J. Newman

Research output: Working paper


The "small-world effect" is the observation that one can find a short chain of acquaintances, often of no more than a handful of individuals, connecting almost any two people on the planet. It is often expressed in the language of networks, where it is equivalent to the statement that most pairs of individuals are connected by a short path through the acquaintance network. Although the small-world effect is well-established empirically for contemporary social networks, we argue here that it is a relatively recent phenomenon, arising only in the last few hundred years: for most of mankind's tenure on Earth the social world was large, with most pairs of individuals connected by relatively long chains of acquaintances, if at all. Our conclusions are based on observations about the spread of diseases, which travel over contact networks between individuals and whose dynamics can give us clues to the structure of those networks even when direct network measurements are not available. As an example we consider the spread of the Black Death in 14th-century Europe, which is known to have traveled across the continent in well-defined waves of infection over the course of several years. Using established epidemiological models, we show that such wave-like behavior can occur only if contacts between individuals living far apart are exponentially rare. We further show that if long-distance contacts are exponentially rare, then the shortest chain of contacts between distant individuals is on average a long one. The observation of the wave-like spread of a disease like the Black Death thus implies a network without the small-world effect.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages8
Publication statusSubmitted - 9 Oct 2013

Bibliographical note

We thank Werner Horsthemke for helpful pointers to the literature on nonlocal reaction-diffusion equations. This work was supported by the US National Science
Foundation under grants DMS–1107796 (TM and MEJN) and DMS–0927587 and PHY–1205219 (CRD), by the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology for
Scotland under grant HR09011 (DL), and by the Michigan Society of Fellows (SAM).


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