Six Degrees of Separation
[ Issue 27 ]

Six Degrees of Separation intrigues Emily Bronto

Allow Bikwil to show you the pleasures of Six Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation

Tony Rogers here explores the uncanny similarity between the concept embodied in our occasional series Stepping Stones and the principle known as Six Degrees of Separation.

Odzookers! I could see the writing on the wall immediately. If not nipped in the bud, this outrageous news could easily pose a scandalous credibility problem for Bikwil and all who sail in her.

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No More Separation Anxieties, Please — Tony Rogers


Not so long ago my unsuspecting attention was drawn by a couple of readers to an uncanny similarity between the concept embodied in our occasional series Stepping Stones and the principle known as Six Degrees of Separation.

Odzookers! I could see the writing on the wall immediately. If not nipped in the bud, this outrageous news could easily pose a scandalous credibility problem for Bikwil and all who sail in her.

Well, well, well. It has all turned out to be most intriguing, with wider implications than you might first imagine. So for those of you equally out of the know, here is a summary of the Six Degrees of Separation idea and its own stepping-stone-like ramifications, including Sidney Poitier, electric shocks and chirping crickets.

(Stepping Stones, you’ll recall, is a Bikwil essay series in which the author deftly links several assorted, apparently unrelated subjects. The crucial principle is that, while each subject has something in common with the next, each successive pair enjoys a different link from that of the previous pair.)

OK. Let’s begin with a movie from 1993 you may have heard of. It’s entitled — wait for it — Six Degrees of Separation. Directed by Fred Schepsi and starring Will Black, Donald Sutherland, Stockard Channing and Ian McKellen, it tells of a young man who turns up one night at the home of a swanky New York couple and cons them into believing he is Sidney Poitier's son and a classmate of their children at Harvard. The next morning, they find out that he’s not exactly what he first seemed, and gradually the family are compelled to re-evaluate their lives.

The film script was written by American playwright John Guare from his highly acclaimed 1990 stage play of the same name. It would appear in fact that it was Guare who coined the SDoS phrase. Even so, the relationship idea embodied in it is a much older one and has much more to do with statistics than confidence tricksters and family secrets.

If you’ve studied psychology at all, you may recall the name of Stanley Milgram, the social researcher. In his notorious 1960s “how-much-torture-are-you-willing-to-dish-out-under-orders?” series of experiments he showed that hundreds of subjects (young, old, women, men) were prepared to deliver what they believed to be painful electric shocks to innocent people, rather than disobey authority. Perhaps, he concluded, we’re all capable of the “only-obeying-orders” evil given a powerful enough situation — especially where someone else in authority claims to be taking responsibility.

Another bit of eyebrow-raising research that Milgram conducted about that time attempted to define the connections at play in our networks of friends and acquaintances — what he called “The Small World Problem”. His experiment has been well described in an article by physicist Robert Mathews in the January/February 2000 issue of World Link that I found reproduced on the Internet.

What Milgram did was to send a package each to various participants all over America, with the instructions to post it on to two other persons whose names he gave, but little further information other than some vague clues about where they might live, their age and their occupation. He suggested they send the package to any acquaintances they thought likely to know the addressees personally who would then send it on.

When Milgram analysed the results of his experiment, the startling upshot was that many of the chains followed a similar asymmetrical pattern. Indeed,

. . . the packages typically reached the two target people after passing through the hands of just five other people. Later experiments produced similar results, making the conclusion inevitable. It seems that, on average, everyone in America — from arms dealer to zoo keeper — can be connected to everyone else via a chain of just five or six intermediaries.

Aha! Six degrees of separation?

Hang on. Can any American really be linked via “five or six handshakes” to all 250 million other U.S. inhabitants? Mathews goes on to ask why, if “our networks of friends are not randomly spread across society . . ., they still allow us to be linked to each other via few intermediaries.”

The question was taken up again in 1996 by Duncan Watts, a doctoral student investigating how the chirps of lovelorn crickets take so little time to synchronise. “Was each listening to all his fellow crickets, or just to his closest neighbours?” he wondered. More importantly, was this related to the old “small world” effect?

Watts and fellow student Steve Strogatz developed some computer simulations of friend networks. Some were utterly controlled (where each friend knew only the people next to him/her), and others completely random (where chances were even that a given person would know anyone else).

In between, where the network was neither random nor regular, Watts and Strogatz predicted that the number of handshakes needed to link people would fall as the random links grew. On the contrary:

Just a tiny number of random links was enough to “short-circuit” an otherwise huge, regular network, allowing apparently unrelated friends to be linked by just a few handshakes.

But what about the real world? Choosing the well-known Internet Movie Database, they put the theory to the test. At the time it had over 200,000 actors listed and all the films they had appeared in. They discovered that the typical actor has worked with about 60 others. Now,

. . . if the showbiz network were completely regular, with no random short-circuits, that figure would imply that you'd typically have to go through 1,800 other actors and their films to link one actor to another. Yet the computer showed that it is possible to link any actor to any other via just three intermediaries.

Creepy stuff.

Soon this sort of motion picture exploration had metamorphosed into what movie fanatics are now pleased to call the Kevin Bacon Game. Invented by Craig Fass, Brian Turtle and Mike Ginelli, three students in their twenties at Pennsylvania's Albright College in 1994, the game originally tested your ability to link any actor in American movies made in the preceding 15 years to Kevin Bacon (his first movie, National Lampoon’s Animal House, came out in 1978), but the interest has since spread further, as we’ll discover.

It wasn’t long that some fairly ill-considered speculation arose that the game was related to the “small world” theory. The result was that in some quarters, where people knew of Guare’s play and film, it started being called “Six Degrees to (or ‘of’) Kevin Bacon”.

The game works this way, and here I quote from the Oracle of Bacon Web site run by Virginia University’s Department of Computer Science.

The object of the game is to start with any actor or actress who has been in a movie and connect them to Kevin Bacon in the smallest number of links possible. Two people are linked if they've been in a movie together . . . For example, you might wonder how Alfred Hitchcock can be connected to Kevin Bacon. One answer is that:

Alfred Hitchcock was in Show Business at War (1943) with Orson Welles, and
Orson Welles was in A Safe Place (1971) with Jack Nicholson, and
Jack Nicholson was in A Few Good Men (1992) with Kevin Bacon!

Why isn’t it called the Gary Sinise Game, I wonder? He’s appeared in almost as many movies and with as varied a selection of co-stars as K.B. Or the Alain Delon Game? Or the Joanne Woodward Game? Or the Morgan Freeman Game? (Sorry. Of course; how foolish of me. They’re foreign, female or black.)

Believe it or not, however, there is a Web site running the game called Six Degrees of Harry Connick, Jr., so anyone can do it: think of a show business name and you’ve got a new twist on an old game. Let’s hear it right now for the Peter Lorre Game. Better still, the Richard Wattis Game.

But there’s more!

One of those young computer whizzes at the aforementioned Virginia Uni, Brett Tjaden, has actually been calculating the “Bacon number” for every single movie and TV celebrity. The most recent average I’ve seen (and I know you’re dying to know it) is 2.877. In other words, any of these actors can be linked to K.B. in an average of fewer than three steps.

When he first heard of the game, Bacon thought people were sending him up, but luckily changed his mind once he met the Albright College trio on a TV show. He has also met Tjaden, on another TV show. Two curious things: Tjaden reckons he’s seen no more than three Bacon movies, and Bacon, who claims to be computer illiterate, has never visited the Virginia Uni Oracle site.

Tjaden has since investigated further and worked out the degree of connectedness among everyone who has ever acted in Hollywood, and that’s a large number — going on for half a million these days. At last count there were 668 actors in his list who were closer the “center of the Hollywood universe” than Kevin Bacon. This central point is defined as that actor to whom on average any other actor can be linked in the fewest steps. Among the 668 are Karen Black, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Elliott Gould, Gene Hackman, Burgess Meredith, Robert Mitchum, Martin Sheen, Donald Sutherland and Shelley Winters.

The top three are Rod Steiger, Christopher Lee and good old Donald Pleasence.

Incidentally, the Virginia Uni Web site also features The Terminator Game for Arnie fans and even an Oracle of Elvis. I’ve heard that there’s also a book called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, to say nothing of the inevitable board game. Are they just rumours? Will this madness ever end?

Funny you should ask. According to Malcolm Gladwell, author of that most absorbing book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000, hard cover ISBN 0 316 64852 3), the Kevin Bacon Game is just another manifestation of his own theory of trends and epidemics — as is so-called “viral marketing”.

This whole phenomenon is also related to the theory of memes suggested by arch-evolutionist Richard Dawkins. A meme is any entity that causes certain environments to copy it — a replicator. It applies culturally as well as scientifically, and thus the term covers good jokes as well as computer viruses.

Finally, I may as well tell you the following snippets, too.

There is an Internet site called that supports an online community where you can connect with your circle of friends and your friends’ circle of friends and their friends, etc.

Then in Melbourne there’s a firm called Six Degrees (the architects who did the original design for the controversial Federation Square), though I suspect that their name bears little relation to the topic at hand.

Indeed, bits of the phrase “Six Degrees of Separation” are cropping up all over the place, not always in their proper context, as in The Sydney Morning Herald’s article of 14/7/00 entitled Six Degrees of Excellence, which was about the half-dozen finalists in that year’s Sydney International Piano Competition. Another example is the title ABC’s Radio National gave to a Lingua Franca broadcast (Degrees of Separation, 30/6/01), which was really concerned with the difficulties of translation from English.

More accurate, albeit more removed, was the Nature report of 9/7/99 showing that the Internet is now so interconnected that on the average no more than 19 clicks are needed to move between any two randomly selected pages.

Anyway, as you can see, there is some coincidental similarity between the SDoS model and Stepping Stones, so with that enthralling history off my chest/conscience, I guess I can safely proceed.

The first instalment of a new set of Stepping Stones will appear in Bikwil’s next issue. This set’s title is Dr. Strangelove and Friends.

Salivation is allowed.

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