Six Degrees of Separation

Is it just me, or do others encounter “someone who knows someone they know” more often than seems believable?

Often I have remarked at what a small world this is. One of the most uncanny incidents occurred between my mother-in-law and another woman with whom she was previously unacquainted. Mother-in-law visits woman’s home for a quilting group meeting. She remarks on a picture on the refrigerator of the other woman’s daughter and asks where she lives. “Oh you’ve never heard of it,” she said. “It’s eight states away, outside of a small town in Kansas.” “Really?” MIL says. “My son lives outside of a small town in Kansas. Have you ever heard of it?” The other woman’s jaw drops. “That’s where my daughter lives. What street does your son live on?” she asked. MIL replies. “You’re kidding, right? That’s less than a half mile from my daughter!” A year later MIL moves to be close to her son, and the other woman and her husband move to be near their daughter. They’ve been good friends ever since.

This phenomenon was originally put forth in 1929 by a Hungarian author who wrote a short story entitled “Chains” or “Chain-links”. He believed that the modern world was shrinking due to the ever-increasing connectedness of human beings. Mathematicians and others would study this and call it “network theory.” Social, friendship networks were studied and games played to illustrate the actual number of degrees. The concept was popularized by an article in Psychology Today magazine around the year 1980. Some studies said there were as few as three degrees of separation in the United States, and anywhere up to ten overall, six being the most agreed upon number.

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Popular culture has used the idea in a number of plays, movies and films, as well as exploring the idea in a Facebook game and in the professional network LinkedIn. With all of this attention it should come as no surprise when it happens, yet it does. It seems like an incredible, unbelievable thing when you consider the staggering number of humans on the planet.

In the light of this phenomenon, a case could be made that the things we do and say have a far-reaching effect. Not only on those close to us, but on the entire social network of connected individuals over the entire planet. We would do well to take this into consideration every time we speak or act, realizing that our lives can have great influence for good.

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