Six degrees of separation

You’ve probably heard of this theory before: the premise that anyone can be connected to any other person in the world via a chain of no more than six acquaintances. It’s also the basis of a play and subsequent film of the same name. (The latter starred Stockard Channing, who more recently played the First Lady, Dr Abigail Bartlet, in The West Wing. Sorry, I just couldn’t resist making what is becoming a customary TWW reference.)

The maths is pretty straightforward. If we conservatively say the average person knows 100 people – and I’m willing to bet the contents of your mobile and email address books easily exceeds that – and each of those 100 people knows another 100 people, then by the time you’ve reached the acquaintances of the acquaintances of the acquaintances of the acquaintances of your acquaintances (that’s five degrees of separation, if you’re counting), then you have access to potentially ten billion people; according to US Census Bureau estimates, that’s equivalent to 1.5 times the total global population. Okay, it wouldn’t actually be ten billion because there would be lots of duplication between people, but the calculation is good enough to demonstrate that the premise isn’t at all far-fetched.

And in our modern world of social networking – email, Facebook, MySpace, message boards, chat rooms, even actually meeting people – the boundaries are collapsing ever faster, to the point where I’m willing to bet there is no one in the UK who I can’t reach within four steps. I’ve just tried to estimate the number of people I know – friends, current and former work colleagues, people I knew at school or university, friends of friends I have been introduced to, and so on – and come up with a number in excess of 1,000, of which I have had some sort of contact (face-to-face, a phone call, an email or other online message) with at least 400 in the past twelve months.

To put it another way: it’s a small world. And it’s getting smaller all the time.

Some examples. At work, there are around 60 people in my immediate department. I’ve only worked here for 3 years, and I live at least 20 miles away from the vast majority of my colleagues; most frequent Reading or London, I go to Oxford. Within this small group alone, here are some of my non work-related connections which require only one degree of separation:

A did the same MBA course as me, albeit several years apart. Naturally, we share many acquaintances through the faculty at the business school.

K was one year above me at university, at a different college but studying the same subject. Though our paths never crossed at the time, through a (very) minority sport we both played (start from football, straight on past hockey, keep going past dwarf tossing, and you’re still not there yet), we have at least a dozen common friends and acquaintances.

A (a different A) has acted in amateur productions opposite the husband of a friend of mine from my MBA.

C is the account manager for a major customer who I worked for several years ago. She deals with a number of people there who I worked with or for back then, and several others have moved to other businesses in the same industry, and consequently deal with other account managers within in my department.

And no doubt there are many other connections I’m unaware of which require one or at most two degrees of separation.

Scary, huh?

I guess all this is an inevitable consequence not just of technology and the connectivity with other people this gives us, but also of an increasingly mobile population, both in terms of where we live and where we work. Gone are the days when you were born in a town, grew up, went to school and worked in that same town, married a local boy/girl, rarely ventured beyond the town borders (except maybe occasional trips to the nearest city), and eventually were buried in the town cemetery. Anyone who has traced their genealogy back more than a hundred years or so will probably recognise this pattern.

Nowadays it’s not uncommon to go to university hundreds of miles away from home, to work for several different companies in several different places (I’m currently on my fifth company in my fifth town), have friends and family all over the world, and even have good friends you have never actually met. (If you think that last one is odd, it’s really not so different from the old concept of pen friends.)

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? A bit of both, I suppose. A lot of people feel disconnected – when many of your friends are no longer just round the corner, it’s inevitable you don’t see them as often as you’d like – which is why sites like Friends Reunited and Facebook have flourished, and it’s probably why so many of us reach out via the online universe, seeking other people with common interests.

I guess ultimately that’s what it’s all about. We all want to belong, and to know that we are not alone in this small and yet ever-so-big world.