Just Explain It: Six Degrees of Separation

How many people are really six introductions away from someone like Brad Pitt, Oprah or someone they have yet to meet? The idea of six degrees of separation has been around for over 80 years. And, with social networking sites booming, more people are connecting across the globe than ever before.  The world is shrinking…figuratively speaking. 

We’ll take a look at whether six degrees of separation is fact or fiction, and give it a test-run ourselves. That's the topic of today's "Just Explain It." 

First, let’s take a look back.  The Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy in a short story called “Chains” first proposed the theory of six degrees in 1929.  Karinthy’s belief was that we are all connected to each other by a string of friends, and that string was made up of six or less people.  But he had little evidence to back up his suggestion. 

Over the years, many attempts have been made to prove that mutual friends might connect two random people. 

In the 1960s, social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s small world experiment confirmed that two strangers could be connected in six degrees.  Milgram asked initial participants to mail a letter through friends, and then friends of friends, to a designated stranger living in Massachusetts.  He found that people, who successfully completed the task, did so with a chain of six or fewer connections. 

One of the more recent attempts to prove we are closely connected was in 2003. That’s when Columbia University researchers released the results of their "Small World Research Project” – an Internet version of Milgram’s experiment.  They asked participants across the globe to try to reach 18 people they had never met by sending e-mails through acquaintances.  Over 60,000 participants created 24,000 e-mail chains, but less than 400 messages reached their marks. However, researchers did find that the successful e-mails took an average of just five to seven steps to reach their targets. 

Ok, admittedly I’m not a scientist, but we here at the show conducted our own investigation to test the six degrees of separation theory.  We discovered I was a link between actresses Angelina Jolie and Elisha Cuthbert. And between them, there are six degrees!

Even Hollywood has its own version called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.  It’s a trivia game that challenges players to find the shortest path between actor Kevin Bacon and another actor – through his or her film roles.

Now let's see how this theory works in people’s social media lives… 

Facebook, along with the University of Milan, organized a study in 2011.  They analyzed the information from 721 million active members, and researchers found that the average number of connections from one randomly selected person to another was 4.74.  And if you limit it to just the United States, it was just 4.37. 

Other sites like, Twitter and LinkedIn, use online social networking to connect members.  For example, LinkedIn users can set up an introduction -- through a direct connection -- with someone they’d like to meet.  On Twitter, a network is created when users follow each other.  According to a study by social media monitoring firm Sysomos, five or less steps separate almost all of Twitter’s 5 billion users.   

So is the six degrees of separation theory fact or fiction?  Do you think it can be definitively proven? Let us know what you think. Give us your feedback in the comments below or on Twitter using #JustExplainItNews.

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