Six Degrees of Separation

Kevin Bacon - Six Degrees of SeparationI first heard about the concept of Six Degrees of Separation more than 10 years ago at a seminar I attended.  The idea is a simple one: that we’re all linked to anyone we may care to meet, anywhere in the world, through no more than 6 levels of contacts. This whole idea, originally proposed in 1929 by the Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy, certainly opened my mind to the potential of networking (amongst other things), although, I must say I was somewhat sceptical about it to begin with.

It was only when I started talking to other people about the idea that the whole concept of Six Degrees of Separation started to really come to life for me.

The idea had also gained popularity with a little help from a play, a movie (you can see the trailer for the movie, below) and later a trivia game in which players try to link the actor Kevin Bacon to another Hollywood star within six steps.

A Personal Example

photo of a Christmas TreeChristmas was just a few weeks after the seminar and I remember sitting in my father-in-laws’ lounge, with 20+ other people, telling them all about 6 Degrees of Separation.  To be honest, they were more sceptical about this whole idea than I was.  Then I had an, unwitting, helping hand.

I’d already told my wife (now ex-wife), Linda, about Six Degrees of Separation and encountered her scepticism first hand.  She, clearly, wasn’t enjoying this particular Christmas conversation and, whilst rolling her eyes, she said; “Well, in that case I’d like to get an introduction to Robbie Williams.”  She just looked at me and smiled.  Clearly expecting me to fall flat on my face at that point.

It was then that Lindas’ cousin spoke up.  Caroline was living in north London at the time and it turned out that her boyfriend played football with Robbie on a Saturday afternoon.

As you can imagine, the conversation gained quite a lot of momentum after connecting so easily to a rather famous individual.  It was the first example of 6 Degrees of Separation that I’d witnessed first hand.  In fact, a few months after that Christmas I found myself telling this particular story at another seminar, only to find that another attendee stood up to say that his best friend co-wrote music with Robbie.  Another direct link to Robbie from a completely different group of people.

Six Degrees of Separation – Fact or Fiction?

As time went by, I collected so many examples of this concept working in everyday, real life situations with everyday, real life people that I had no doubt in my mind that it it was more than just a theory.  Despite my experiences, though, many people were still highly sceptical of the whole concept whenever the idea of Six Degrees of Separation came up in conversation.

A photo of Dr Ivan MisnerOf course, they weren’t on their own. There have been many differing opinions on this subject and, as a fan of Business Networking, BNI and Dr Ivan Misner, I was very interested to hear his opinion when he released his book, The 29% Solution.  Crammed full with 52 excellent Business Networking tips, I was more than a little disappointed to discover that the premise of the book is that the 6 Degrees of Separation concept only works for 29% of people.

Even though Ivan quoted some research on the matter, I felt that there were some glaring holes in the basic premise of the research and his was an opinion that I couldn’t help but strongly disagree with.  Having said that, it was a gut instinct based on personal experience rather than the result of methodical research.

Then came along some research carried out by Facebook, which I saw on the BBC’s website in November 2011 (click here for the for the full article).  Their research was not only very methodical but it was done at a time when there were 721 million members on Facebook, which equated to about 10% of the worlds’ population. By any stretch of the imagination, that’s an excellent sample size on which to make some assumptions.

Facebook LogoEssentially, Facebook’s statistics showed that 99.6% of all pairs of users were connected by five degrees of separation, and 92% were connected by four degrees.

On average, the distance between any two members was 3.74 degrees, which was shorter than the average 4.28 degrees of separation registered by Facebook’s 2008 membership, when the network was smaller (I didn’t even know about that at the time).

What’s more, because of the incredibly large sample, the researchers believe that this figure would show little variation if the other 90% of the world’s population joined Facebook and the statistics were run again.

So.  There you have it.  Not only is the concept of Six Degrees of Separation a sound one, it should probably be known as Five Degrees of Separation.


Steve Bimpson

P.S.  Please share this with your network and let them know how close they are to the people they would most like to meet.  They only have to ask the right questions – which, we’ll come back to another time.

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