Do Most People Really Have 6 Degrees of Separation from Kevin Bacon?
TIP: The Kevin Bacon game assigns a bacon number to a person based on how many of degrees of separation there is between the person and Kevin Bacon. This concept is based on “small world theory,” a longstanding serious look at the degrees of separation between us. Some look for fun, some like Stanley Milgram looked to explain how events like the atrocities of WWII could happen given how interconnected we all are.
Small World Theory / Six Degrees of Separation Theory
Many “small world” studies have been done throughout the years, from radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi’s thoughts on the subject in the early 1900’s (he guessed 5), to experimental social physiologist Stanley Milgram’s small world experiments in 1967 (which showed 6 degrees), to Microsoft’s 2008 study (which showed average degree of separation is 6.6), and more.
Although most studies have showed the average degree of separation is about 6 (but not exactly), the Microsoft study showed some people are connected by up to 29 degrees. Others, like a person living alone in the jungle, could be completely unconnected.
Thus, the 6 degrees of separation rule is a rule-of-thumb, it is generally true for most of us, but doesn’t apply to outliers who live unconnected from modern society.
Small world theory studies explained. Includes mention of the Milgram study.
Less Than 6 if Counting Social Media
Small world studies typically look at who we know in any way, but each study is different.
With Kevin Bacon one must have worked with Kevin Bacon on a professional or personal level to count in the Kevin Bacon game specifically for example.
However, if we count just people we know in any way (including social media) there can be an argument that many people have less than 6 degree today.
In today’s world, if we consider social networking, it’s likely most of us (for instance all Facebook users) have fewer degrees of connection on average. How many degrees do you have between you and Mark Zuckerberg? How about Bill Gates? I have one if you count the fact we are Facebook friends, although to be very clear, I don’t know either personally. With that said, assuming I have 1 degree between me and Mark Zuckerberg, if you are friends with him on Facebook too, then you and I only have 2 degrees between us (with the link being Zuckerberg). In this way we can see how social media creates a more interconnected world via the digital space.
TIP: In other words, the degrees of separation theory depends partly on what we count as a social relationship. Do the people have to work together? Or do they just have to be friends on social media? Or, can it be that they have had any interaction whatsoever?
The Science of Six Degrees of Separation. Veritasium explains a modern take of small world theory.
What Does 6 Degrees of Separation Mean?
6 degrees of separation means that you can be connected with any other person through 6 relationships with other people. Your friend knows a friend, who knows a friend, who knows a friend, who knows a friend, who knows Kevin Bacon for example. The idea originated back in the late 1920s, but came into the pop-culture lexicon in the mid 1990s after being applied to Kevin Bacon’s network of working relationships.
A video discussing the 6 degrees of separation theory.
6 Degrees of Separation Theory Origin and History
Taking a step back from Kevin Bacon, a theory was proposed long ago that everyone on earth is separated by 6 or less acquaintance links apart. This idea was first put forth by Frigyes Karinthy in 1929, and popularized by a 1990 play written by John Guare.
The basic concept (Small World theory) is that due to technological advances in communications and travel, friendship networks could grow larger and span greater distances. In particular, Karinthy believed that the modern world was ‘shrinking’ due to this ever-increasing connectedness of human beings.
The Origin of the 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon Game
In a January 1994 Premiere magazine interview about the film The River Wild, Kevin Bacon commented that he had worked with everybody in Hollywood or someone who’s worked with him or her. This comment snowballed into a game based on the idea of Kevin Bacon being the center of the entertainment universe. It got media attention and became the focal point of a book called “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon (ISBN 9780452278448) and lots of television appearances by its authors including on the Jon Stewart Show.
Kevin Bacon then embraced his newfound focal point at the center of humanity with related media appearances, using the opportunity to spread awareness of positive social causes (see for example sixdegrees.org).
Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon: Inside the Game. A look at the game.
In the summer of 2012, Google began to offer the ability to find an actor’s Bacon number on its main page, by searching for the actor’s name preceded by the phrase “bacon number”. This is closely related to an Erdős number which is the “collaborative distance” between mathematician Paul Erdős and another person, as measured by authorship of mathematical papers.
The computation of a Bacon number for actor X is a “shortest path” algorithm, applied to the co-stardom network:
- Kevin Bacon himself has a Bacon number of 0.
- Those actors who have worked directly with Kevin Bacon have a Bacon number of 1.
- If the lowest Bacon number of any actor with whom X has appeared in any movie is N, X’s Bacon number is N+1.
TIP: You can find the Bacon number of many actors at oracleofbacon.org.
A video featuring Kevin Bacon discussing the six degrees of Kevin Bacon .
The Microsoft Study That Proved the Whole Thing Was Essentially Correct
There had been many studies done in the past, but a 2008 Microsoft study helped to confirm small world theory in recent times using a rather big data source.
In 2008 Microsoft published a study in which they proved that everyone has, on average, roughly 6 degrees of separation from other people (6.6 degrees of separation to be exact.) The study is the most significant one ever done as researchers at Microsoft studied records of 30 billion electronic conversations among 180 million people in various countries accounting for roughly half the world’s instant messages as of June 2006. Of course, this study only includes people who are active on the internet in social media.
Technology Keeps Improving, Meaning There Could Be Less Degrees on Average
Today we have social media on a level that we simply didn’t have in 2006 when Microsoft grabbed its data. It is easy to speculate that the average person will have even fewer than 6 degrees of separation from many people with similar social network hubs, This could be true even now with things like Facebook specifically.
People are driven by a need to connect with each other, and technology has created an avenue for that as the theories have predicted since 1929. One problem that existed back then still exists now, “widows”.
The 6 Degrees Theory Falls Apart When it Comes Right Down to It, Because of “Widows” and “Outliers”
The problem with the 6 Degrees theory is “widows” or people who are disconnected from society and “outliers” people who are relativity removed from society.
If we look at a tribe in the middle of the Jungle who has no connection outside of the tribe the whole thing falls apart, if they have little connection it may take far more than 6 connections to connect.
To Bottomline: It’s More Like the Average Person Has 6 Degrees of Separation
The bottom line is that while The Small World and Six Degrees of Separation theories have truth to them, they are not true as absolutes (only as general rule-of-thumbs that speak of averages with outliers excluded).
Instead of saying “everyone has 6 degrees of separation,” it is much more correct to say, “the average person has around 6 degrees of separation or less between them and another average person (including Kevin Bacon)…. and with social media considered, those with similar interests may very well have less on average.”
With the above being said, it is worth noting that in the entertainment industry most people would have 6 or less “degrees” connecting them to Kevin Bacon… and since Kevin Bacon is on Facebook, you probably have less 6 degrees of separation to him too.
Fun Fact: Peter Sarsgaard, who played Stanley Milgram in the Experimenter, has 1 degree of separation between him and Kevin Bacon. They were in Black Mass (2015) together! What a small, small world.