Is it true that we are only six contacts away from meeting anyone?
Since the dawn of humanity, people have needed to band together in order to survive. From the family groups of prehistory to the current megacities with millions of people inhabiting them, our history and development as a species has been due to the collective effort to survive and thrive. And in this effort, each and every one of us is weaving our own network of contacts, which in turn have their own. And today, when we live in a globalized and interconnected society through networks, it is not impossible to come to think that we could actually get in touch with anyone.
This thinking has generated that some researchers have generated different theories that try to reflect the possibility that in reality we are all interconnected. One of the theories that have been handled in this regard is the theory of the six degrees of separation, which we are going to talk about next.
The theory of the six degrees of separation: origin and basic idea
The so-called theory of the six degrees of separation is a theory that states that any person can be interconnected with any other in any part of the world through a chain of contacts that does not exceed six people, thus there are only five points of union between both of them.
Although it seems an idea of a globalized world like that of today’s society, the truth is that it is a theory that has its origin in the proposal for the first time in 1929, its author being the writer Frigyes Karinthy and appearing in its publication Chains (chains, in English).
The original idea makes sense and is viable: we meet a large number of people throughout our day to day (proposing later authors like Watts around a hundred), and these in turn to many others, who in turn also they will have as many. In the long run, the number of interconnected people would grow exponentially, making it easier and easier for us to find common contact with the target subject over time, and over time if we wanted to send him a message it would be enough to follow that chain.
Social connection points
Now, the fact that only six highs are necessary is more difficult to demonstrate. The specific number of “jumps” was the subject of arduous debate until 1967, when the well-known psychologist Stanley Milgram (the same one from Milgram’s experiment of obedience to authority), carried out a series of experiments trying to solve the unknown, in which was called “the small world problem”.
In one of them, Milgram gave different people at random a series of letters to be sent to an unknown person located in Massachusetts, only through their acquaintances. Although many of the letters never arrived, not least because many participants did not pass them or their contacts did not keep trying, in cases where they did, an average of six steps was counted.
Milgram’s experiments in this regard could be unrepresentative, but later other investigations (and some relatively recent, such as one in 2001) were carried out that seem to show that the number of jumps required, although not absolute, on average remains around six jumps.
Theory in the information society: six steps (or clicks) away
Time has passed since the theory was first proposed, and there are multiple social and technological advances that have appeared since then. Among them we can find the appearance of the Internet and social networks, which facilitate interaction between people from all over the world. Thus, today it can be even easier to establish a contact between very distant and different people.
In addition, the use of these networks allows not only contact, but also the calculation of the separation between people: LinkedIn or Facebook are examples of this. However, the data obtained show that the theory of the six degrees of separation may have evolved with time, the distance being much smaller today. For example, a study by the Universitá degli Studi di Milano and various Cornell researchers from 2011 show that the distance between two people on Facebook is 3.74 people.
We cannot fail to indicate that despite the fact that this theory may be relatively supported, it must be taken into account that there are a large number of variables that can interfere with the specific number of jumps: it is not the same to come into contact with someone of your own nature. city than from another continent, or that has another language.
The difficulty will also vary depending on whether the person is more or less popularly known, or whether or not they share a hobby or a job. Another problem is found in the media: nowadays we can generate more diverse contacts thanks to new technologies, but those who do not have them do not have this option.
Lastly, it is different to contact someone in a city than in a town with few inhabitants, and if we go to the extreme we may find it much more difficult to contact someone in situations such as war, extreme poverty or famine. Or if one of the two extremes (the one that initiates the search for contact or the objective of this) is a member of an indigenous tribe or a culture isolated from the rest of the world
The usefulness of this theory
It is possible that reading this theory may seem interesting at an informative level, but the truth is that it is not just a curiosity: it has its utility in multiple sectors.
One of them is that of work networks in the business world, in such a way that it allows studying how to form portfolios of clients and contacts that can facilitate them. It could also be applied in marketing and advertising, when taking into account the formation of contact chains when promoting the sale of a service or product. Well-known word of mouth can also be linked to this factor
Finally, we can also find usefulness to the theory of the six degrees of separation at the educational level: it can be used and taken into account in the transmission of prosocial values, prevention programs (for example, sex education, drug prevention or gender violence) or information.
Watts, DJ (2006). Six degrees of separation. The science of networks in the age of access. Editorial Paidos.