Monday, September 22, 2008

Six REAL Degrees of Separation

I recently noticed an experiment over at Facebook to use that network to see how far separate we are from other people.

There is an inherent problem with the exercise of the theory of 6 degrees of separation. That being, people are very loose with the concept of what constitutes a "degree". Facebook "friends" is just such an example. Are these people really what you would consider "friends" or are they "acquaintances"? If the latter, then they are not really a "degree of separation" candidate in my book.

For example, you can find posts online about how someone thinks they are personally six degrees away from Kevin Bacon like this:

Kevin Bacon starred in Hollowman. Working on that film doing special effects sound was

1st degree: John P. Fasal who once worked on the same film (Children of the Corn) as

2nd: Mike Warren (who did the titles). Mike Warren gets his hair cut by

3rd: some guy in Studio City who is brother-in-law of

4th: the guy who once sold

5th: Carolyn her 1998 Toyota Camry before she left Southern California.

6th: Carolyn is now the warehouse manager at MY company.

Therefore, I am only 6 degrees of separation from Kevin!

I say hogwash. Not only do I not really know Carolyn (except to ask her to fill out an inventory form now and again), most of the people in this set of links don't really know each other either except casually.

The original concept of 6 degrees of separation (aka "the small world phenomenon") is that we personally know people who personally know people who personally know people, etc. The idea being, that you are connected with a VERY strong line of relationships to someone you don't know at all.

Working on someone's car, talking to someone through Facebook "friendships", having a second cousin once removed who once played golf with a guy, etc., ARE NOT close relationships.

In the game 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon, the task is to find people who actually worked DIRECTLY with someone who worked DIRECTLY with someone who worked DIRECTLY with Kevin Bacon. Citing an extra who never once saw Kevin on set as a degree away from Kevin is ridiculous and undermines the concept of the theory.

So for "degree" to mean anything in this context you need to be connected through a personal or business relationship. (i.e. you could actually make a recommendation - good or bad - of that person to someone else.)

In this respect, "friends" on Facebook don't really fulfill the definition of a "degree" in its original conception (until you REALLY DO become friends and not just an online acquaintance).

Here is a more straight-forward set of degrees (a semi-real world example):

President Bush worked closely with:
1. Tony Snow who was good friends with:
2. Skunk Baxter (formerly of the Doobie Brothers) who consults with Science Applications International Corporation's CEO who is
3, Kenneth C. Dahlberg who graduated from USC where he took classes from:
4. [fill in name of professor here] who was also:
5. your professor when you went to school at USC about 10 years later.

In this example, Bush is 5 degrees of separation from you (I made up the last two of course).

You
1. Your professor
2. Dahlberg
3. Skunk
4. Tony
5. GW

Bottom line; someone you met via the Internet doesn't count in this game. Sorry.