A Node in the Network
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Posted: Tuesday, May 15, 2012
by Jack H. Schick
I have a rather close connection with John Lennon--two degrees of separation, in popular, contemporary terms. You see, back in the summer of 1966, Frantic Freddie, a disc-jockey from a radio station up in Allentown, organized a bus trip down to JFK Stadium in Philly to see a Beatles concert. A good friend of my family, a guy who was like my big brother, Jon, was also a friend of Freddie's. He got us tickets. I sat in the seat right behind Freddie on the bus ride. I gave him my copy of John Lennon's book, In His Own Write, to see if he could get an autograph when he was at the press conference. Frantic Freddie wasn't able to get it signed, but he did get to ask John a question, about his comments on Jesus or something. So, there is only one person between me and John Lennon. It might be stretching it a little bit, but I like to consider John ‘a friend of a friend.'
So, as you can see, my life is intertwined with the lives of a lot of famous and important people. The connection that really excites me, though, is the one I have with Greta Garbo (if you've read my essays about her, you'll know why). Starting with Tommy, then through Yogi and Frank, then through Peter Lawford, and his sister-in-law, Jackie, to Aristotle Onassis (one of Garbo's lovers), in my relationship with the Swedish Sphinx, there is only six degrees of separation. But, from what I hear. I'm connected to every single person in the world by that, or less.
Six Degrees of Separation
The concept of ‘six degrees of separation' was first proposed by Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy in his 1929 short story, Chains (Lancszemek). In the story, Karinthy investigated, in abstract and fictional terms, many of the problems that would occupy 20thCentury mathematicians, sociologists and physicists in their development of the principles of 'network theory.' Consequently, Karinthy greatly influenced modern thought on social networks.
The concept holds that, due to technological advances in communication and travel, friendship networks will grow larger and span greater and greater distances. Karinthy believed that the world was ‘shrinking.' Though there might be great distances between individuals, the growing density of networks through which humans interact was creating a smaller social distance between them.
In Chains the characters came to believe that no two people on the planet could be separated by more than five other people. Karinthy wrote:
"A fascinating game grew out of this discussion. One of us suggested performing the following experiment to prove that the population of the Earth is closer together now than they have ever been before. We should select any person from the 1.5 billion  inhabitants of the Earth – anyone, anywhere at all. He bet us that, using no more than five individuals, one of whom is a personal acquaintance, he could contact the selected individual using nothing except the network of personal acquaintances."
The concept of ‘six degrees of separation' expanded from an esoteric social science idea into a popular culture axiom after the 1990 publication of American John Guare's play of that name. Released as a film in 1993, Six Degrees of Separation is by far Guare's most widely-known work, and popularized the phrase and the concept (also known as the ‘small world phenomenon').
In the film, a character ruminates on the theory that had perplexed and spurred debate among social scientists and philosophers for decades. He says:
"I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find it A) extremely comforting that we're so close, and B) like Chinese water torture that we're so close because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection…I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people."
The idea that a change in the interactive behavior of mankind would occur as interconnecting networks emerged was first postulated by Guglielmo Marconi at his 1909 Nobel Prize address. It is from there that Karinthy got his ideas. Several studies were conducted on the phenomenon over the following decades, social psychologist, Stanley Milgram's Small World Experiment being the most well known. Peter Dodds, Roby Muhamad and Columbia University's Duncan Watts followed suit. Though social theories can be difficult to prove (an isolated head-hunter on Borneo or a politician with ‘a million connections' can skew the results), all the experiments seemed to support the Six Degrees concept.
Mathematicians approached the ‘problem.' Watts and Strogatz reduced the phenomenon to an equation. The average distance between two nodes (call them people) in an random network (call it the world) is equal to: log N divided by log K, where N = total nodes and K = acquaintances per node. They assumed that 10% of the population is too young to be much involved in social networking outside of their family. Thus: N = 300,000,000 people in the USA; K = 30 acquaintances per each person (a modest number, I'd say). Then: log N (19.5) divided by log K (3.4) = 5.7 Degrees of Separation. They then used the formula for the entire world: N = 6,000,000,000; K = (30, again), so 22.5/3.4 = 6.6 Degrees of Separation across the entire human population. That averages out to pretty close to six.
With the development of modern computers and the Internet, communications and human interaction across great distances has expanded 'logarithmically.' World-wide social networks have developed: Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin and others. I've 'sat at' an Internet site poker table with people from seven different countries on four different continents. I've interacted with them, ‘chatted' with them and, usually, lost fake money to them.
Some of the ‘social networks' have done independent studies of the ‘small world phenomenon.' Twitter reports that there is a mere 3.43 degrees of separation between any two random ‘Tweeters.' Facebook's research was based on 721 million users with 69 billion friendship links. A paper released in November 2011 indicates that the average degree of separation between Facebook users is 4.74. Both those numbers are well below six, so, it appears that the world really is growing smaller.
The ‘small world' concept has made its way into the popular culture. It inspired students at Albright College in Pennsylvania to develop and market a game called "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon." The goal of the game is to link any actor to Kevin Bacon through no more than six connections. Two actors are considered connected if they have appeared in a movie or commercial together. Mr. Bacon, aware of the game's popularity on college campuses, launched the charitable social network web site, SixDegrees.org, in January 2007. He wanted to build on the ‘small world phenomenon' and enlisted other celebrities to help inspire online ‘giving.'
I went to the World's Fair in New York City back in 1964. I was eleven. It was really neat. One of the ‘pavilions' was sponcered by the United Nations Children's' Fund (I think). I didn't pay much attention to that stuff back in those days. I didn't even know for sure that Angola and Ceylon existed. We waited in line for over an hour to get in. They kept playing a song. I can still hear it. A bunch of young kids sang; "It's a small world after all. It's a small world after all. It's a small world after all. It's a small, small, world." I liked it. I sang it out loud for weeks. I still can. And, they sure were right.
Well, I think this essay is long enough. I'd better get it posted on the website. Once it is, I'll promote it on Facebook and Twitter and see how many people feel like reading it. Probably a lot more than would if I made a few copies and passed it around my little neighborhood, or passed it on to the people with whom I have zero degrees of separation.
So, thanks to all of my fellow nodes-in-the-network out there in this big...I mean, small and getting smaller...world.
This Article has been viewed 966 times. (Not updated in real-time.)Top-level comments on this article: (4 total)
» left by Susan Miller Abbott 1 year 8 days ago.
Thank you Jack, you are quite the wordsmithing node! Wonder if your writing has an impact? Well, I'm sitting here singing "It's a Small World..." and enjoying the fact that I know a guy who grew up with Kevin Bacon. You know me soooooo......
Glad to be directly connected to you and don't tell you often enough how much I enjoy your writing.
Hey! Thanks, Friend!
It is great to open up an article and see logarithms used and used correctly.
Following on from your story about John Lennon (and the others), I could claim a very slight link to Led Zeppelin and Queen because a friend of mine is a friend of some of Led Zeppelin and a Teacher I once had went to university with Queen. Also, when I was about ten or eleven I made a flippant remark to Princess Anne (see asked my name in a very posh way and I replied "human") which connects me with The Queen. There was a newspaper article (small local newspaper) written that claimed that my great, great uncles brother was Clark Gable - I've seen the cuttings and I don't believe it at all.
Thanks for reading and commenting, Connor. My father-in-law shook hands with Kruchev so I guess I'm even closer to Stalin than I wrote. Of course, it's all a silly game. Social Scienc is not an exact science.
» left by Sean from Applebachsville 1 year 7 days ago.
Thanks for the article Jack. You had me hooked at John Lennon. Glad to be only one degree away from knowing you. Fun article.Thanks, Sean, for reading and commenting
Your usual great job. In touch not only with theoretical, you throw in the cool personal stuff and great "sweaty" examples from your own life. I remember watching a performance of "Small World" on the Today Show. Since you and I are virtually the same age, it's great to read your stuff. I also loved you 6 degree stuff and the cool history. I would love to have written this. Great job.thanks so much for saying that, and for reading and commenting