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Six Degrees of Separation – Fact or Fiction?

Would you believe it if I said that you could discover a connectionto just about any unrelated person on the face of the Earth? Or that your favorite movie star or a notorious gangster can be connected to you through a chain of merely six people. Stunned? Brush through this article to find out how…
Six degrees of separation refers to a theory which states that each person on the face of the Earth is connected to all the other people through a chain or connection of not more than six people. This theory not only strives to explore connections between two remotely located people, but also aims to understand levels of social interaction, connectivity of people using the W3 or World Wide Web, and spread of certain epidemic diseases on account of social connections. Till date, there has been a lot of research on this subject to verify preciseness of this theory. Researchers feel that popular social networking sites like Facebook may have some answers, on account of their huge membership. Let us take a look at this unique theory, which has generated a lot of interest and hype among people ever since it was proposed.


The six degrees theory was first proposed by Frigyes Karinthy, a Hungarian writer, in the year 1929. In his book titled ‘Everything is Different’, he first mentioned an abstract link or chain between people all across the world. To stress on this concept, he wrote in a game that his book characters played in the story. The concept states that each person can be a friend of a friend or a relative of a relative.



Although the original theory suggested the number of links in the chain to be six, several experiments in this field have proved otherwise. One such experiment was popularly carried out by an American psychologist and Harvard Universityprofessor Stanley Milgram in the year 1967. Milgram’s aim was to study the average number of links between two unrelated Americans using the principles of the Six Degrees of Separation Theory. Milgram concluded that the average degrees of separation between two unknown people staying the US was just 3 to 3.5 and not 6 as stated in the original theory. This is because Milgram narrowed his research within boundaries of United States and did not mention the degrees of separation between two people residing in other nations.



Measuring degrees of separation between people living worldwide is a massive and difficult exercise. In spite of this, Prof. Duncan Watts from Columbia University made an attempt to find the average number of links using emails. In the year 2003 and 2004, Watts randomly selected 18 target people from about 13 nations around the globe.The starting points in Columbia’s Small World Project were volunteers that were ready to send emails to their respective friends.Participants were asked to send a pre-drafted email to all people known to them.Subsequent recipients were also asked to forward the email to every person in their contact list. Thus, several email chains for the project started running on parallel basis.A particular email chain would stop as soon as one of 18 target recipients received the email.

Watts factored the number of participants who quit the email chains and calculated the median length of an email chain to be approximately 5 and 7 persons. In the end, Watts did support the original theory by stating the average number of links to be 6.




It is the weak ties that make the world small. ~Dr Jon Kleinberg, Cornell University~

There are plenty of social networking sites that have gained world-wide popularity today. Sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc., boast of millions of worldwide user profiles. Avid users of Facebook will agree that this website springs some surprises when members find mutual friends on the most unexpected profiles. In fact, to popularize this theory, Facebook even launched a web application named Six Degrees. It prompts users to click on the ‘Search for Someone’ tab and type a name of any other Facebook user. This application can help users to trace their connection to that person and generate a report stating the number of links involved.The average degrees of separation between Facebook’s worldwide users is just 4.74. This number is expected to reduce in the coming years, due to a consistent rise in Facebook users. This is because connections between people broaden with new friendships.

Many other social networking sites report the links between their users to range anywhere from 3 to 5.



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