SIX DEGREES OF BALONEY
By M. Grant Winston, Managing Editor
There are no more than six degrees of separation between any two people, so you may have heard. Everyone you know is one degree away, everyone they know is two, and everyone they know is three degrees away. With six hops between people you know and so on, you should find a connection between you and anyone else, such as Kevin Bacon. There was a study done at Columbia University in 2003 to determine whether this is so, and they claim to have confirmed it. An article about this study was published at The Washington Post, and then picked up by other media outlets such as MSNBC. In spite of the fact that the numbers do not justify the conclusion they claimed, no one in the press until now has taken them to task for it. I will.
In this 2003 study, roughly 24,163 people tried to send an email or instant message through acquaintances to one of 18 targeted individuals in 13 countries they did not personally know. Only 384 were able to pull it off. 23,779 people failed the task completely. Expressed as a percentage, that is about a 1.5% success rate, or a 98.5% failure rate, depending on your point of view. That is abysmal! In spite of this, they still claim that their findings prove the old notion we have heard bantered about. As the kids say online, O RLY? (it means "Oh, really?" if you don't understand their instant messaging shorthand).
Even if we ignore all the failures as they do, and look at the piddly 1.5% of messages that did eventually reach the target, it usually took more than 6 leaps to get the job done. The average was 6.6, meaning that half took more than that. Still, the publishers of this study claim to have proven their point. Obviously, they decided what they were going to "find" before they even started, and were not going to let a little thing like the actual results get in the way. They were going to jump to that conclusion no matter how high they had to leap.
This whole six degrees nonsense came from a study in 1969 by Stanley Milgram and Jeffrey Travers. Their study aimed to have 296 people in Boston and Nebraska write a letter to a stock broker in Boston none of them personally knew; hoping friends of friends would eventually get the letters to him. Only 64 letters got to him, in spite of the fact that they were not spread all over the world. All were in the United States, many of them were right there in Boston already, and they were only after one guy. 64 out of 296 is roughly a 21.6% success rate. Of those who could make the connection, the average was 6.2 leaps from source to target. Once again, that means half of them took more. Even that study, constantly cited as proof of the six degrees theory, showed that it is bunk. Consider this the next time someone parrots to you that it is a small world after all, and that there are only six degrees of separation between any two of us.
If we take another look at Columbia’s 2003 numbers, what do they really tell us? Considering that only about 1.5 percent of 24,163 messages reached their intended target, it seems to say that fewer than two of any hundred strangers can be connected in any way. Between those measly few we can connect, it will probably take more than six leaps. Sorry if it ruins your day, but you do not have a friend of a friend of a friend who knows Kevin Bacon. It is a big world out there; a very big, lonely and scary world. About 98.5% of us cannot be connected in any way. That old adage is six degrees of baloney.