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Six Degrees of Separation


A world map with lots of colored pins and a person pointing to the map.

Have you ever been at a party, and someone says, “I think I know you because…” and then starts weaving a tale of mutual acquaintances that leaves you both bewildered and oddly fascinated?


It’s happened to me more times than I can count. I’ll be at a friend’s BBQ, enjoying a burger, when a stranger starts mapping out a convoluted network of people that connects us. By the end of it, we’re practically family.


This bizarre and delightful phenomenon is known as "Six Degrees of Separation," and it’s become one of my favorite party tricks. Let’s dive into this strange concept that suggests we’re all much closer than we think, and maybe have a laugh or two along the way.


The Birth of a Legend


Our story begins in 1929 when Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy proposed that no matter how big the world is, we’re all connected by just six social ties. Picture Karinthy sitting in a café, sipping on some strong Hungarian coffee, and thinking, "You know what would be wild? If everyone on this planet could be linked by just six friendships!" And just like that, the Six Degrees of Separation theory was born. Okay, that was the “CliffsNotes” version.


Milgram’s Mad Experiment


Fast forward to the 1960s, when Stanley Milgram, a psychologist with a flair for the dramatic, decided to test this theory. He chose a bunch of random folks in Nebraska and asked them to get a letter to a stockbroker in Boston. The catch? They could only send it to someone they knew personally, who might then know someone else, and so on. After several letters and many confused Midwesterners, Milgram concluded that, on average, it took about six steps to reach the stockbroker. Voilà! Six Degrees of Separation seemed real.


A sketch of Kevin Bacon.

The Kevin Bacon Game


Ah yes, the 1990s—I remember it well. The era of flannel shirts, grunge music, and the rise of the internet. College students, with nothing better to do, invented the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game. The idea? You can connect any actor to Kevin Bacon through their film roles in six steps or less. The game exploded, and Kevin Bacon, previously just another Hollywood actor, became the unofficial mascot of interconnectedness. He even started a charity called SixDegrees.org.


Here's a little confession: I thought Kevin Bacon was my long-lost third cousin once removed.


Social Media Shenanigans


Today, social media has taken the Six Degrees concept and run with it. On platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn, you’re likely just a few connections away from, well, everyone. A study by Facebook once suggested that users are separated by an average of just 3.57 degrees. That’s right, you’re practically BFFs with Mark Zuckerberg. Who knew posting cat memes could bring you so close to tech moguls?


Here are a few examples to illustrate this hilariously improbable concept, let’s take a look at a few whimsical "six degrees" scenarios:


A breakdancer on stage.

Scenario 1: You to Beyoncé

1. You went to college with Jenny.

2. Jenny’s cousin is a backup dancer.

3. The backup dancer worked with Shakira.

4. Shakira once performed at a charity event hosted by Jay-Z.

5. Jay-Z is, of course, married to Beyoncé.

 

A woman in a yoga pose on a balcony overlooking the jungle.

Scenario 2: You to the Dalai Lama

1. Your best friend’s yoga instructor studied in India.

2. The instructor was taught by a renowned monk.

3. That monk attended a conference with another senior monk.

4. This senior monk had an audience with the Dalai Lama.

 


Antartica Station

Scenario 3: You to an Antarctic Scientist

1. You met a guy at a party who is an environmental activist.

2. This activist has a pen pal in Norway.

3. The pen pal is a marine biologist.

4. The marine biologist collaborates with researchers in Antarctica.



While the Six Degrees of Separation theory is intriguing, it has its quirks. The strength and quality of our connections matter significantly, and not every link is influential—knowing someone who knows someone’s pet groomer won't likely connect you to Elon Musk. Moreover, geography and social circles tend to cluster, limiting how far our connections truly reach.


I mention this because, as a writer, understanding the nuances of human connections can deepen our storytelling. The next time you're at a party, bring up the Six Degrees of Separation; it’s a fun conversation starter that highlights our interconnected world. Remember, whether you're connected to a Nobel Prize winner or a cheese taster, we’re all part of this vast human network. And hey, maybe Kevin Bacon will pop into your next gathering!

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