Once you get past the Disney allusion, it's easy to see the appeal of the idea that everyone in the world is linked by a short
chain of social acquaintances. This "small-world phenomenon" was first advanced four decades ago by social psychologist Stanley
Milgram, whose groundbreaking work includes the theory that there are only six links, or acquaintances, between any two randomly
selected Americans. Popularized as "six degrees of separation," this notion has been transformed by the digital revolution
into a buzzing, booming hyperreality beyond anything even the radical Milgram could have imagined.
The Impact of Online Info: In a survey of some 3,000 Web users, half said their last health search had an effect, with treatment
decisions, overall approaches, and doctor communications the most common
But not beyond anything a marketing expert could dream of. Through consumer-generated content, people who might not otherwise
associate are forging meaningful connections—in virtual communities—based on their common knowledge, interests, and goals.
These communities, called social networks, are redefining commercial spaces—and classic marketing concepts like "brand as
product" and "word of mouth"—with their 24/7 consumer-driven dynamism.
As the Cluetrain Manifesto, the bible of the Internet-marketing movement, puts it: "A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people
are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting
smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies." In healthcare, where well-being and emotion have long been inextricably
linked and markets were always based on conversations, these social networks present themselves as pitch-perfect opportunities
to build lasting relationships and brand loyalty—and to advance the public health.
The Online Health Experience: The majority of Web users reported feeling empowered by the health info accessed. But about
25 percent said the info left them "overwhelmed" or "frustrated"
Where Baby Boomers and Gen C Meet
Online social networks are the spawn of Internet technology and the rise of a new wave of connected consumers. This "Generation
C" shares digital content via blogs and other interactive Web sites, mobile phones, and devices like the BlackBerry. Contrary
to popular perception, though, Gen C is not the exclusive domain of idle teens; nearly half of all
http://MySpace.com/ visitors are 35 and older.
Some history: Social networks first emerged to meet basic communication needs among Web users, but commercial applications
quickly became evident. Reader-posted reviews made
http://Amazon.com/ one of the first profitable interactive communities focused on a shared interest. Friendster.com,/
http://Tribe.com/, and similar services enabled members to organize their recreational and business activities. Soon they were trading up to
the next model of social-networking sites, which were more user-friendly and segmented around specific interests, such as
business, politics, culture, and gaming.
http://MySpace.com/, which provides access to a network of friends, photos, videos, music, and blogs, is one of the most visited sites on the
Web and features more than 100 million individual profiles.