When six ordinary people participated in an ABC television special called “Six Degrees of Martina McBride,” the host of the show, Jay Schadler, was surprised, maybe even shocked that each and every one of them were able to connect with the country music star through a chain of personal connections containing six people or less. Martina McBride was just as surprised.
The rules of the contest (it was actually a singing contest – each of the six contestants were vying for a chance for Martina to give one of them a boost onto the country music scene) were that they could not research a direct route to her. They couldn’t stand outside a concert hall or drive to her house. They had to find someone – an acquaintance – who knew someone who knew someone until they found a personal Martina-McBride-country-superstar connection.
One person who may have predicted the outcome, however, is author Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell is the author of “The Tipping Point” and “Blink.” In “Tipping Point,” Gladwell tells of a social experiment done in the 1960’s by Stanley Milgram. In the experiment, envelopes were sent out to several people in Omaha, Nebraska along with the name and address of someone who lived in Sharon, Massachusetts. Each person was instructed to get the envelope to the address in Sharon, but not by mailing it directly. The envelopes came with instructions that told the recipients to write their name on it and send it to someone who may know someone else who has connections to the guy in Sharon. It seems complicated; most of us would guess that it would take hundreds or thousands of connections to reach a specific person in a small town thousands of miles away. The results of the experiment? It took approximately six connections for each envelope to reach its destination.
A play on this experiment is the popular party game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” This game is based on the idea that any (or at least many) other actors can be connected to movies starring Kevin Bacon by their connection to other actors who have also appeared in movies with Kevin Bacon. A study by Brett Tjaden at the University of Virginia determined that nearly any actor can be “connected” to Kevin in an average of less than three steps. He found that many other actors are even more connected than Kevin.
A recent study called the Small World Project uses the internet revolution to connect people all over the world. This project is being conducted by Columbia University. Over 60,000 people from 170 countries around the world have taken part in this experiment to try to connect to others using a human e-mail chain. While hundreds of connections have been made, what do you suppose the average number of “connectors” were required for an e-mail to reach its target? You guessed it! Just six links in the chain for one random person to reach another random person in the world.
Globalization is quickly making the planet Earth a smaller and smaller place to live. The internet allows us to meet and form relationships with other people who would have been virtually unaccessible a short time ago. Maybe future parlor games will begin with the phrase, “The Three Degrees of…”