When I moved to this little town, population 10,000, give or take, I found it remarkable how well everyone seemed to know everyone else. My new friend quipped, “Normally, it’s six degrees of separation, right? Here, the math works out to more like 2-and-a half.” By way of illustration: my boss was dating a woman who was the ex-wife of the man who was dating the new friend quoted above. Very tight circle, that.
I can’t remember when I first learned of the term, six degrees of separation. Maybe it was the episode with Kevin Bacon on Mad About You. It goes without saying it was the theme of the moving starring Will Smith in his dramatic debut. Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point discusses the concept at length. He describes the 1950/60 experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram. Milgram wanted to learn how many steps it would take to connect 160 random people in a rural Nebraska town with a stock brokerage in Boston. When the results were in, he found on average, there were 5 intermediate steps, or six degrees of separation between Nebraska and Massachusetts.
So. There I was this morning, trying to focus on my statistics homework. As I was listening to a video lecture, a sidebar in the text caught my eye. It was titled, wouldn’t you know it, “Six Degrees of Separation”.
Well, folks, news flash! Make that SEVEN degrees of separation. Apparently, as my text book, Triola’s “Elements of Statistics” describes it, the experiment has been criticized for its high failure rate and its disproportionate inclusion of subjects with above-average incomes. A more recent study conducted by Microsoft researcher Eric Horvitz and Stanford Assistant Professor Jure Leskovec involved 30 billion instant messages and 240 million people. This study found that for instant messages that used Microsoft, the mean length of a path between two individuals is 6.6, suggesting “seven degrees of separation.”
Here at home, though, I think the circle is as tight as ever. And that’s a good thing, actually.