Six Degrees of Separation / Is it a small world after all?

At family reunions, my mother used to joke about the fact that actress Shirley Jones (of “The Partridge Family” fame) never showed up. Apparently someone had figured out that Jones was a distant relation by marriage, and more than once I heard of plans by one of my cousins to invite her to a reunion just for fun. Whether an invitation was ever actually sent I don’t know, nor can I recall the exact chain of relatives that supposedly connected me to Jones. But I always enjoyed the thought of being related, however distantly, to a celebrity. I imagined showing up at a dinner or award ceremony where I’d be introduced to the rich and famous: “This is Joe Kissell, my third cousin-in-law, once removed.” I didn’t suspect it at the time, but if a prominent sociological theory is correct, I may have indirect social connections to millions or even billions of people.

The theory in question, of course, is that of “Six Degrees of Separation”—roughly, the notion that anyone can form a chain of personal contacts leading to any other person, with no more than six links in the chain. Nearly everyone has heard of this idea, thanks to John Guare’s 1990 play “Six Degrees of Separation” and the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game that became popular in the late 1990s. But what many people don’t realize is that this game has its roots in serious sociological research, and that work is currently underway to establish the validity of the theory scientifically.

Network (of) Associates
The late Stanley Milgram, a Harvard social psychologist, performed an experiment in 1967 to determine the extent of social networks in the United States. In his study, it took an average of six steps for a letter sent to a random resident of Omaha, Nebraska to reach a target person in Boston—using only personal contacts to form a chain. This was the origin of the “six degrees of separation” idea, but Milgram’s small experiment was hardly conclusive, restricted as it was to a very small sample size (and with all participants within the U.S.).

Nearly four decades later, as part of the Small World Research Project at Columbia University, sociologists attempted a modern version of the experiment using email. The project worked like this. You registered on Columbia’s Web site, providing demographic information about yourself and answering a range of questions to help the researchers make sense of their results. You were then presented with the name and location of a target person somewhere in the world. The idea was to send a specially formatted email message to someone you know who you think is closer to the target (in one way or another) than you were. When this next person in the chain received your message, the process repeated until, the researchers hoped, a chain formed all the way from you to the target person. Among other things, the experiment hoped to determine what the average length of such a chain is, providing some statistical validation or refutation of the “six degrees” notion.

Connect Four
The experiment ended after a couple of years, producing some very interesting results (only some of which have been published so far). In all, more than 60,000 people from 166 countries participated in the experiment’s first round. Although over 24,000 chains were started, only 384 of them successfully reached their targets. Most of the unsuccessful chains were broken simply because someone along the way chose not to participate. The high number of incomplete chains skews the otherwise impressive results: the successful chains required an average of only four links. However, when they factored in how long the broken chains most likely would have been, had they been completed, the researchers estimated that people are separated by five to seven degrees—with shorter chains expected between people living in the same country. In other words, there’s apparently nothing magical about the number six, but it does happen to be pretty close to the average number of social links most people have to most other people, at least among the 600 million or so of us with internet access.

One of the main goals of this project was to determine which factors people consider in trying to form associative links. Every time participants selected a new message recipient, a form asked why they chose that person—for example, due to geographic proximity or a shared profession or hobby—as well as what their relationship to the person is (friend, coworker, relative, etc.). The experiment found that participants considered geographic proximity and similarity of occupation to be primary factors in choosing how to continue a chain. And although people most frequently chose friends as the next link, professional relationships were much more likely to lead to a successful chain. I participated in a couple of chains in the experiment’s first round, and although I consider myself relatively well-connected, neither of my chains successfully found its target. But the question is not whether there is a link between any two people; it’s how you go about finding it. Email may or may not be the best discovery method, though it certainly does have a kind of efficiency that casual conversation or letter writing do not.

Supposing it turns out that everyone on the planet is indeed connected to everyone else by no more than six steps, so what? Sooner or later, given the sheer number of people on Earth and the ways in which people form networks, the six-degrees-of-separation theory must become nearly certain mathematically. But does that actually mean anything? Will it lead to world peace, or will it just facilitate the spread of viruses—biological or digital? I don’t know, but I’m sure it will lead to something. Let’s talk about it over lunch. I’ll have my wife’s friend’s assistant set it up with your brother’s neighbor. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Six Degrees of Separation…

The official Small World Research Project Web site at the University of Columbia appears not to have been updated in some time. This article in Science details the results of their first experiment.

A Wired News article from January 15, 2002 discusses both the Small World Research Project and the Electronic Small World Project, a similar undertaking at Ohio State University.

The Six Degrees of Separation Facebook group has well over 4 million members.

If you get stumped playing “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” a computer can help you out. Enter the name of any actor or actress into The Oracle of Bacon at the University of Virginia and it will immediately return that person’s “Bacon number,” representing the number of steps it takes to link that name with Kevin Bacon based on shared film credits. Almost every name I entered came up with a score of 1 or 2; the highest I got was 3 with “John Barrymore.” Supposedly some actors have scores as high as 8. A more generalized version of the program can link any actor to any other actor. It’s called Star Links.

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For detailed information on the theoretical background of the “six degrees” phenomenon and research that has been done to date, see Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age by Duncan J. Watts, one of the Columbia University researchers. Watts also wrote Small Worlds in 1999.

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