In 1929, the Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy put forth a theory that everyone and everything in the world is six or fewer steps away from any other person in the world.
A few decades later, the Austrian mathematician Manfred Kochen wrote about a similar theory in the manuscript Contacts and Influences. Look at a population the size of the United States’, he said, and you’ll find “it is practically certain” that two people will be able to connect via two or three other people. Throughout the years the theory of interconnected social networks has intrigued everyone from intellectuals to entertainers.
In 1990, John Guare premiered the play Six Degrees of Separation, which explored this theory and brought it to the attention of a greater audience. As one of the characters states:
“I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The president of the United States, a gondolier in Venice; just fill in the names. I find it a) extremely comforting that we’re so close, and b) like Chinese water torture that we’re so close because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection… I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people.”
Popular culture has also embraced this theory, most notably in the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game, which began on college campuses and has since evolved into various websites. In this party game, people think of a Hollywood personality and then try to create a path connecting that person to the actor Kevin Bacon.
For instance: Start with the Harry Potter films, where the Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson played Bill Weasley. Can you connect Domhnall to Kevin within six steps? Sure.
- Domhnall Gleason was in the 2012 movie Anna Karenina with Michelle Dockery.
- Michelle Dockery played Lady Mary in the TV show Downton Abbey with Elizabeth (“Countess Grantham”) McGovern.
- Elizabeth McGovern starred in the 1988 rom-com She’s Having a Baby with Kevin Bacon.
See? Easy. Everyone’s connected.
Kevin Bacon good-naturedly responded to the popularity of the game by creating the website SixDegrees.org, which inspires charitable giving through the use of a person’s social network. This has proved to be an excellent and beneficial use of the “small world” concept, and even helped inspire the concepts of LinkedIn, Facebook, Kickstarter and Twitter.
With the ever-increasing popularity of the internet as a social tool as well as a means of gathering information, the world keeps growing smaller. And the Six Degrees theory continues to fascinate all manners of people worldwide.
At The Western Stage this fall, audiences will get to see connections being formed and severed before their eyes, as John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation runs from Sept. 23 through Oct. 9 in the Studio Theater.
Take a moment after the show and play the Six Degrees game within your own social circle! We bet you find some unexpected links.
For more reading about this and related theories, we recommend the following:
- Linked: How Everything is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life a 2003 book by Albert-László Barabási
- The Small World Problem by Stanley Milgram, Psychology Today
- Connecting with people in six steps by Michael Blastland, BBC News
- Proof! Just six degrees of separation between us by David Smith, The Guardian