A world of connections in six steps

Looking to speak to the president of Iceland? How about Arnold Schwarzenegger? Don’t worry; you’ve already got the connections.

There are seven billion people in the world — a thought that can make anyone feel insignificant. But think about this: you can connect to any one of them with the network of people you know now. The widely acknowledged theory of “six degrees of separation” states that everyone on earth is linked together by about six steps — friends, friends-of-friends and so on.

Can this really be true, or is it no more than a far-fetched theory?

History of network theory

These patterns and networks bring people closer together and more directly associated, making it seem like they are right next door. This small-world theory has actually been around for decades. Hungarian essayist Fringys Karinthy first mentioned the idea in his 1929 short story, “Chain-Links.”

“Planet Earth has never been as tiny as it is now,” Karinthy writes. “It shrunk — relatively speaking of course — due to the quickening pulse of both physical and verbal communication.”

As the ease of communication becomes more apparent, the world continues to shrink even further. It’s a paradox: As the population gets larger, the world feels like a smaller place.

“It seems every new wave of technology serves as a kind of projection screen for hopes of better connection and understanding,” said Markus Schulz, assistant professor of sociology, in an email. “The rise of the Internet in the mid-1990s had renewed the notion of a ‘global village,’ that was previously coined with regard to television. And before that, newspapers were seen as (a) medium to facilitate peace.”

Thus, it’s important to note that these networks are constantly changing as time goes on and technology gets more advanced.

Spatial aspects of network communications

Chenxi Yu, Ph.D. candidate in urban and regional planning, relates these ideas to space and location-based characteristics.

“With the help of the Internet, we are able to create more aspatial networks,” she said. “You don’t really have to have that network in place, but if you need to get something done, your ability to communicate to a whole different world is easier.”

Long-distance networks can be available at the click of a mouse. Suddenly, it’s effortless to network and communicate with someone across the globe whom you’re probably connected to in some way.

Although these virtual networks may be in place, the communication between them is a different story entirely, Yu said. Culture shock, language barriers and of course, spatial barriers exist that sometimes prevent easy communication from taking place.

“There’s a word to describe this phenomena,” Yu said. “‘Glocalization.’ The transferrable knowledge is global, but the tacit knowledge is still very much embedded in local communities or in the long-established network.”

Social networks are another big part of this connectivity theory. Facebook served as the medium for activists in Egypt and across the Arab world in 2011, and it continues to connect people — for better or for worse.

“The big danger with digital networks is their surveillability,” Schulz said, referencing Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency. “At stake here are the rights of citizens, consumers and users. Key is not so much the quantity of connections, but the quality.”

Real-world applications with data

“The thing is, nowadays, almost everything is interconnected,” said Jiawei Han, professor of computer science. He also serves as the director of the Information Network Academic Research Center, or INARC.

Han’s research focuses on data mining and data research systems, in addition to information network analysis. This involves searching and examining patterns in large sets of data and making connections with these patterns.

“The ‘six degrees of separation’ (concept) for us is pretty common,” he continued. “A lot of things can be done based on analysis of your existing network. Then, you will have good confidence to predict what things will happen in the future.”

For example, some of his students predicted the outcome of last year’s presidential election based solely on how often President Barack Obama’s picture was downloaded.

The Army Research Laboratory funds INARC, which utilizes research of constantly-shifting networks. These systems are then transferred to be used by the Army itself. These networks of information can therefore serve as a vital tool in real-life situations.

Six is the magic number — or maybe not

It is evident that people and concepts are strategically connected throughout the globe. But where does the number six come in? It may appear to be a tiny number when dealing with the world’s seemingly infinite labyrinth of networks.

In theory, however, it checks out.

Sociologist Stanley Milgram decided to test this notion in 1967. He selected a random sample of Midwesterners and asked them to send packages to one stranger in Massachusetts. The trick was they couldn’t contact the person directly — they had to send packages to some of their acquaintances, who would send their packages to their acquaintances and so on, until the target was reached. The result? To successfully deliver the package, the average number of intermediates was between five and seven.

Columbia University professor Duncan Watts decided to apply this experiment to the 21st century. In 2001, he used 48,000 email chains in 157 countries to try to locate 19 target individuals via the Internet. It may not be a surprise at this point: In the end, the average number of connections was indeed six.

Based on his own research and studies, Han agrees.

“‘Six degrees of separation’ is pretty real, even with billions of people,” he said.

Regardless, the concept has its critics. Just like any scientific theory, it will never be truly possible to test it in full. In this case especially, there are so many variables and outliers that it is near impossible to identify all of them.

In terms of non-anthropogenic connections, there are many more gray areas. For example, Han gave the example of highways and airports as their own networks. To travel across the country, it is often necessary to switch highways at several different points — well over six — although they are all connected. For airports, on the other hand, you may reach your destination in only one or two flights, traveling thousands of miles in merely hours.

What about Kevin Bacon?

Finally, there is the popular culture game of “six degrees to Kevin Bacon.” This is the idea that Bacon is the center of the entertainment world, and that any actor or actress can be connected to Bacon through movie roles.

The Oracle of Bacon website allows you to enter the name of an actor to find their “Bacon number,” or how many links there are between them. For example, Matt Damon was in “Ocean’s Eleven” with David C. Roehm Sr., who was in “The Woodsman” with Bacon. Thus, Damon’s Bacon number is two.

For anyone itching to make more connections, there is The Wiki Game, which spits out two seemingly unrelated Wikipedia pages and gives a strict time limit for the player to link them together. The number of clicks varies depending on the game.

Whether a connection involves Bacon, another actor or anyone in the world, networks are everywhere. They can be discovered through the Internet, through the grapevine or not at all. Either way, someone on the other side of the globe may actually be much closer to you than you may think.

Reema can be reached at [email protected]

Editor’s note: A previous incorrectly stated Edward Snowden’s name as Eric Snowden. The Daily Illini regrets the error.