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3.61 Degrees of Separation (by Paul W. Smith)

Separation Cartoon

That basketball game you really wanted to see is sold out? Relax, I have connections. You want the best price on a new car? No problem, my brother-in-law works at the dealership. Frustrated in your job search? Forget about patrolling the Internet – “networking” is to modern employment what “plastics” was to Benjamin. From entertainment to shopping to working - and pretty much anything else - it’s not what you know that counts, but who you know.

If connecting to the right people is the secret to success, the 1929 epiphany of Frigyes Karinthy provides some encouragement. Frigyes was the regrettably named Hungarian playwright who first suggested that every other person in the world is six or fewer steps away. His claim was even more remarkable when you consider that to place a phone call to someone in 1929, you had to go through an operator, using up one of your steps before you even got started.

This concept remained an obscure curiosity until 1990 when it was resurrected in a play written by John Guare. There exists an Erdos number, expressing the separation between mathematician Paul Erdos and others based on authorship of journal articles, but for some reason that didn’t catch fire with the general public. Few of us know much about the social scientists who have tested the separation idea in a multitude of ways, but everyone knows about the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Originally conceived by three buddies at Albright College in Pennsylvania, it has evolved into both a party game, and a charity.

The Bacon number is as straightforward in the movie business as the Erdos number is in academic circles. Consider this; Elvis Presley was in Change of Habit (1969) with Edward Asner who was in JFK (1991) with Kevin Bacon. Kevin’s Bacon number is 0, Ed’s is 1, and Elvis scores a 2 on the Bacon meter. This could easily have remained confined to celebrities and math geeks without the advent of Big Data miners like Facebook.

Big Data in Mark Zuckerberg’s universe begins with the 1.6 billion people currently using Facebook. Among these social cognoscenti, the average number of iFriends is around 350, and there are several folks who have pinned the meter at Facebook’s limit of 5000. There is good reason to be skeptical of these claims. Scientists who study this sort of thing have found that Homo sapiens can manage no more than 150 friends at a time. Whether this results from too much drama or too many requests to borrow money is not yet determined.

The computers that crunch these numbers really don’t care about the quality of your friends; all that matters is the statistical average path length between any two people. Studies of the Facebook universe show us that the average Bacon number in this friendly group is now 3.57, down slightly from 3.74 five years ago. While it is possible that humans are becoming friendlier, I suspect the more likely cause is the shear increase in Facebook membership (up by 250 million over this five year period). Whatever the reason, those who insist that technology is making the world smaller can take this as their cue to look smug.

Like it or not, Facebook says that I am separated from everyone else by 3.61 degrees. Although I find this below average number a bit discouraging, I take solace in the fact that I can count on knowing someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone I can talk to.

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Author Profile - Paul W. Smith, a Founder and Director of Engineering with INVENtPM LLC, has more than 35 years of experience in research and advanced product development.

Prior to founding INVENtPM, Dr. Smith spent 10 years with Seagate Technology in Longmont, Colorado. At Seagate, he was primarily responsible for evaluating new data storage technologies under development throughout the company, and utilizing six-sigma processes to stage them for implementation in early engineering models. He is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, and currently manages the website “Technology for the Journey”.  

Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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