Six Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation Theory

Six degrees of separation theory is quite interesting. And, you might have already heard about it. Plenty of scientists in fields of mathematics, psychology, philosophy, sociology and network sociology has been working on this theory. They searched and made experiments to find any signs, facts, and calculations that prove this theory to be right. But, what does six degrees of separation tells us? Basically, this phenomenon shows how every person on the planet Earth can connect to any other individual by only five more people (one acquaintance). This makes a total of 7 people and 6 chains – six degrees. Now, that is amazing!

Just imagine it. At this moment you are reading this article and if you choose one acquaintance that is connected to more people, there is a big chance you are connected with the author. In other words, you are connected to me. With six degrees of separation theory, we can see how small world really is. Basically, we are all connected to one another. And, it is important to mention that there are 7.6 billions of people who exist today! Some people also call six degrees of separation theory as shrinking world theory or small world theory. Also, there is a “rule of six handshakes” theory with its base in six degrees of separation theory. According to this rule, you are connected to every person by exchanging handshakes with only 5 people, and those five people make 6 chains.

See also: Alien Hand Syndrome: Look What My Hands Can Do

Six Degrees of Separation TheoryTechnology made the world look smaller – Shrinking World

Frigyes Karinthy was the first one who mentioned the shrinking world theory in his short story “Chains” or “Chain-Links” (1929). We all know how far we have come with technology and our abilities to use that technology in the best way possible. The world has changed. Some would say for better. On the other hand, others would say for worse. Nevertheless, there are so many things we can do today that we thought would be impossible hundred years ago. With the rise of technology, we got the possibility to communicate with anyone. And we can do it no matter where they are. A distance between humans is decreasing drastically (but only when it comes to communication, emotional distance is another story, and quite sad one). Seeing this, you can assume why the “shrinking world” terminology. Because the world really is shrinking. At least that’s how it feels.

In Karinthy’s story, characters believe that any two individuals can be connected with only five acquaintances. Because of that conclusion, they decided to make a game, an experiment that will prove that. They decided to select any person on this planet and find out can they connect with him/her by using only five more people. From these five individuals, only one can be a personal acquaintance. Even though this is just a story, his piece made many scientists think. Could this be possible in reality? As it turns out, it really can.

“Small world” experiment

In addition to shrinking world theory, there is “small world experiment”. In small world experiment, we can clearly see the pattern of six degrees separation theory, although the researches didn’t use that term in the experiments. This research was conducted by Stanley Milgram (American social psychologist). In his experiments, he is trying to find out how connected are people in the United States. Furthermore, he wanted to know what are the odds that two randomly selected people know each other. He also wanted to find out the average path length between two people. In other words, Milgram wanted to count the average number of ties between two people. Let’s see how did that look like.

His method of checking out this theory was sending letters. Firstly, he picked two towns ( Omaha, Nebraska, and Wichita, Kansas) that were the starting point of the experiment and the third town (Boston, Massachusetts) that was the ending point. People from Omaha and Wichita got the assignment to write a letter with their name on it. The task was to send the letter to one specific, previously selected individual from Boston. People that were sending the letter had two choices. To send the letter directly (but only if they know the person), or to send the letter to one of their acquaintance (with the assumption this acquaintance might know him/her). As a result, if someone chooses to send the letter to their acquaintance, he/she also has to write his/her name on the letter and pass it forward in the same way. In this way, Milgram could know exactly how many people received this letter before it reached its destination.

  • Results:

The results of Milgram’s research confirmed the six degrees of separation theory. When he got the letters back, he saw that some letters reached the destination through only one or two chains. On the other hand, some letters reached the destination with nine or ten chains. When he calculated the average number of chains, he got 5.5 to 6 chains. In other words, every individual in the United States is connected to every other person from the U.S. And, on average, only 6 individuals make a separation gap between the two people.

Six Degrees of Separation Theory
We are all connected!

“Small world” experiment on the internet

Duncan Watts (professor at Columbia University) decided to recreate the research of Milgram. The only difference was that he used internet e-mails instead of letters. In his research, he included 48 000 of people whose task was to send an e.mail. There were also 19 targets (people who should receive the e-mail). To make things even better, these people were spread through 157 countries. The result? Professor Watts also confirmed the six degrees of separation theory. The average number of chains was also six. But, it is important to mention that the number six was not the maximum number of chains! Aside from small world experiments of Milgram and Watts, there are many other researchers who also confirmed sic degrees of separation theory.

Six degrees of separation theory on Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace

We all know that connecting with other people is much easier than connecting in real life. On the internet, we can get to know anyone. There is no limit when it comes to sending “friend requests”. We could even say that the more people you know, the world will seem smaller to you. Because of that, some researches decided to test six degrees of separation theory on the internet. To be exact, on Twitter and Facebook. And, I must say that the results are impressing. Small world indeed. Based on the results, the degree of separation between two random individuals on Twitter is only 4.67. And, on average, 50% of people on twitter are only 4 chains away from any other person. Furthermore, the degree of separation on Facebook is on average 4.57. And, when it comes to Facebook, it seems that 99.91% of users are interconnected.

Moreover, when it comes to MySpace, there were no experiments for six degrees of separation theory. But, there was one situation that shows how small world really is. And, how fast the information’s, or in this case hacking code, can spread. In 2005. one MySpace user decided to write a code for his account. So, what did this code do? Every time someone visited his profile, his profile picture, text “Samy is my hero” and the code was copied to its own home page. After only 20 hours, more than 1 million users had that code on their own profiles. Just imagine it, a million of users suddenly “connected” with this code just because few people visited his profile. This is what I call mind-blowing fact.

Popularisation of six degrees of separation theory

Today, this theory is very popular and well-known. Many people agree that American playwright John Guare is the one who popularized it. And, it was because of his same-named play and film (Six Degrees of Separation). The movie and the play became popular very fast. After that, many other playwrights and movie producers used this theory to set relationships in their story. But, it wasn’t just his play and film that popularized this theory. There is also “Six degrees of Kevin Bacon” game. In this game, you should find a way to connect any Hollywood actor or actress to Kevin Bacon by only using six connections or less (connections are also movie stars from Hollywood). Who knows, maybe there are some more examples of six degrees of separation in today’s popular culture. Can you recognize and name them?

The Science of Six Degrees of Separation


Although many people think that six degrees of separation is just a theory and nothing more, there are some good examples that prove this theory in practice. And, I must say, everything seems logical to me. Just think about how many people you met in your life. Firstly, all the people you met when you were a kid. In other words, all your kindergarten colleges or friend from your playground. Secondly, all the people you meet at school, college or work. Furthermore, there are so many people you know from your family, neighborhood or your favorite pub. When you collect all those experiences, you can see how many faces in your life you have met without even noticing it. And, those people, also have as many (little less or more) people they know. Because of that, six degrees of separation doesn’t seem so far from the truth after all.

We are all connected, even with people who seem so far away. Even celebrities. For example, with only six chains, you can connect with Queen Elizabeth, Bill Gates, The Pope or Kardashian family. Pick whoever you like. Maybe someday you really do meet them because of your connections.





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