Small Worlds

September 26, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston

Six degrees of separation. Stanley Milgram (yes, he of the obedience experiments) didn’t coin the phrase, but he may have been the one to come up with the concept. The “small-world” hypothesis, he called it.

I was reminded of it twice yesterday.
1. Last night I went to a memorial service for someone. I had barely known him, but our kids have been in the same schools since kindergarten. Even after this man and his wife split up and he had left, my family remained friendly with his wife and son. But at the service, I saw people I knew not from the schools but from completely different contexts. Here was a couple I knew only because they were friends of a mutual friend, and we’d see them at her house. Another woman I knew asked me almost accusingly, “What are you doing here?” She had known the deceased professionally (they were musicians) but knew me only because our kids had been in the same school. Two different networks leading to the same place. Small world.
2. I think the explanation for the six degrees is that you go from small people to big people and then back down. People fairly far down in some organization will have some connection to those higher up in that organization. Those higher-ups know higher-ups in other organizations, who will in turn have a connection to those lower down.
Example. My wife has a good friend whose husband is high up in some do-gooder federal agency or program (something about the arts perhaps). Yesterday, the friend phoned to say that she’d been at some benefit in Washington at the Kennedy Center focused on this agency. So while her husband was on stage in some official capacity, she was seated in the Presidential box with just a few people, including Laura Bush. For some reason, the President himself decided to pop in, and he chatted in his friendly way with the people there. Politicians are glad-handers— Bush is a good example — they like people, they remember them.
So now I know someone who “knows” Bush. From there it wouldn’t be too difficult to connect me with anyone in the country, maybe anyone on the planet. (We’re talking about “knowing” and “connections,” not liking or agreeing with.) And if you are acquainted with me, then you yourself are only three degrees from Bush.

No comments: