04 Oct 6 Degrees of Separation
Kevin Bacon, Stanley Milgram & Cobwebs
by Sarah Church
How many times have you bumped into someone you know whilst away on holiday – or happen to know someone your friend does completely unrelated? Once upon time I remember meeting the postman in Spain and can remember saying “What a small world”. Six degrees of separation is the theory that anyone on the planet can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries.
This was made popular and the concept more common by the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon drinking game”. Based on the Six Degrees of Separation assumption, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’s drinking game is where movie buffs challenge each other. Starting with a randomly-determined first player, each person chooses an actor and challenges the player on their right to connect that actor to Kevin Bacon in as few steps as possible.
Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’s drinking game is where movie buffs challenge each other.
As much fun as this game can be, there have been numerous people dating back to the 1930’s trying to validate the original theory of Six Degrees of Separation. One of the most famous experiments was by the American sociologist Stanley Milgram.
In 1967, Stanley Milgram devised a new way to test the theory which he called “the small-world problem. Keeping in mind LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram was 45 years in the future he used the most modern means of communication around at that time…the post.
He randomly selected people in Mid-West America to send packages to a stranger located in Massachusetts. The senders knew the recipient’s name, occupation, and general location.
They were instructed to send the package to a person they knew on a first-name basis who they thought was most likely, out of all their friends, to know the target personally. That person would do the same, and so on, until the package was personally delivered to its target recipient. Very few of his packages reached their targets. In his first unpublished study, only three of 60 letters—5% made it. Even in Milgram’s published studies, less than 30% of the folders got through. Since then, only a few replications that actually spanned cities have been done. Of these trials, few packages made it through, especially across class and race boundaries.
Although the participants expected the chain to include at least a hundred intermediaries, it only took (on average) between five and seven intermediaries to get each package delivered. Milgram’s findings were published in Psychology Today and inspired the phrase “Six Degrees of Separation.”
Milgram’s experiment developed the desire and interest to learn more about the probability that two randomly selected people would know each other.
Since then there have been many experiments to validate or dismiss this theory. Whether you believe or not the bottom line is the world is shrinking due modern day business set ups and social media. Our world and networking habits changed forever when we started to experience the benefits and disadvantages of the most popular social network companies.
I’m often asked to summarise how LinkedIn and Facebook helps with networking and growing connections. The easy analogy that I often give is to imagine all your friends, family, business contacts all connected in a big cobweb. Often cobwebs are invisible and you are not aware of them until you walk into one and are wiping webs off your face (finding out the milkman’s daughter is your hairdresser – invisible web link). What Facebook and LinkedIn have done is to make the connections more visible – very similar to the morning dew making the cobweb visible. All of a sudden complicated networks become clearer and you can follow the pattern.
In business today it is increasingly important to grow our cobwebs and understanding how they are connected. The biggest error most people make when trying to raise their profile or connect with decision makers is to rush into action wasting hours of time and energy without having a plan, end goals or an understanding of social media etiquette.
Imagine you’re standing in the middle of the cobweb and your decision maker is on the outside. It pays to take your time and understand how best to gain their attention, whose help you need/trust to help move you along the connections and how you are going to motivate them to pay you any interest. In a busy world filled with sales people competing for some attention it is vital you clearly state the “WIIFT” (what’s in it for them). My advice is not to panic but take time and develop a solid and clear social media strategy – keep spraying water onto your cobweb so you can see how the connections are linked the give them a reason to take notice. Let’s be honest – very few people would volunteer to skip into the centre of a spiders web!