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
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. 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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
degrees of separation?
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.”
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?
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).
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:
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.
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.
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
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”.
works this way, and here I quote from the Oracle of Bacon Web site run by
Virginia University’s Department of Computer Science.
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:
Hitchcock was in Show Business at War (1943) with Orson Welles, and
Welles was in A Safe Place (1971) with Jack Nicholson, and
Nicholson was in A Few Good Men (1992) with Kevin Bacon!
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.)
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.
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.
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
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
three are Rod Steiger, Christopher Lee and good old Donald Pleasence.
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?
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”.
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
I may as well tell you the following snippets, too.
an Internet site called sixdegrees.com
that supports an online community where you can connect with your circle
of friends and your friends’ circle of friends and their friends, etc.
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.
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.
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
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.
instalment of a new set of Stepping Stones will appear in
Bikwil’s next issue. This set’s title is Dr. Strangelove and