Sep 3, 2008

Six Degrees of Separation


Do you have many friends? How did you meet them? It is highly probable that you met most of your friends in your neighborhood, school, and at work. On the other hand, you may also have friends whom you met in the internet. With today's high-tech communication, it is possible to meet anybody regardless of the geographical or cultural boundaries. The world has been made smaller by technology. Modern communication, particularly the internet, created a global community that was not possible before. The community that it created is a trans-generational, trans-cultural, and trans-geographical community. It is a virtual community that exists as electronic digital packets of data. The rules and means might be different but the principles of social networking still apply. It is either you meet someone as complete stranger or you are introduced by someone who know you both. Through incidental meetings and common interest, long-lasting friendships and even romances might develop.

Common wisdom tells us that everyone else in the world is separated by an average of six degrees of separation. Considering the technological connections, the average six degrees of separation might actually be smaller than six degrees. This means that even with the world's more than six-billion population, it is within the realm of possibility that you can meet just anybody else. You can prove this by simply entering an internet chat room. However, how about those who do not have access to the internet?

Meeting the Vicar of Christ

On the other hand, how about those celebrities, world leaders, and other important persons? Do you still have a chance of meeting them? For instance, if you want to meet the pope, what social channels you should take? If you are not a Catholic and you have low socio-economic status, you will need many go-betweens to have audience with the pontiff. You also must have a serious reason of wanting to meet the Holy Father. Of course, this should not include assassination attempt. Assuming that you are an ordinary citizen and not a terrorist, the most common channels that you should take would be like this:

1.) First, you must talk to a Catholic priest about your desire of meeting the pope (you must provide important reason for this such as seeing an apparition of the Virgin Mary on your breakfast bread toast);

2.) Second, the parish priest must talk to his superior or diocese bishop for approval. A formal letter of request might be needed;

3.) Third, the bishop or religious superior must contact the papal nuncio;

4.) Fourth, the papal nuncio must then have an appointment with the Camerlengo or Papal Chamberlain;

5.) Fifth, the Camerlengo might directly schedule an audience and also initiate background investigation on you. On the other hand, your request for audience with the pope might be referred to a special investigative body that is in-charge of miracles and apparition;

6.) If your request is finally approved following strict protocols, you may then have an audience with the pope.

There you have it. It's the classical six degrees of separation. Well, I made-up some of the steps to retrofit the concept but it is a good illustration, don't you think? If you are still not convince of the "six degrees of separation" concept, maybe it is time that you start submitting your request for audience with the Vicar of Christ.

The Milgram Experiment

A more scientific study actually had been conducted to test the validity of the "six degrees of separation" concept. It was the Milgram Small World Experiment. The experiment was conducted by Stanley Milgram in 1967. It was also Milgram who conducted the controversial Obedience Experiment in 1974. The small world experiment sought to find out the the average path of social networks in the United States. Although Milgram did not actually use the term "six degrees of separation," the experiment provided a clue on the average number of people that separates two complete strangers. The experiment yielded the result of 5.5 average. Milgram used chain letters that he randomly sent to a certain number of people. The experiment procedure is detailed below:

  1. Though the experiment went through several variations, Milgram typically chose individuals in the U.S. cities of Omaha, Nebraska and Wichita, Kansas to be the starting points and Boston, Massachusetts to be the end point of a chain of correspondence. These cities were selected because they represented a great distance in the United States, both socially and geographically.[1]
  2. Information packets were initially sent to randomly selected individuals in Omaha or Wichita. They included letters, which detailed the study's purpose, and basic information about a target contact person in Boston. It additionally contained a roster on which they could write their own name, as well as business reply cards that were pre-addressed to Harvard.
  3. Upon receiving the invitation to participate, the recipient was asked whether he or she personally knew the contact person described in the letter. If so, the person was to forward the letter directly to that person. For the purposes of this study, knowing someone "personally" is defined as knowing them on a first-name basis.
  4. In the more likely case that the person did not personally know the target, then the person was to think of a friend or relative they know personally that is more likely to know the target. They were then directed to sign their name on the roster and forward the packet to that person. A postcard was also mailed to the researchers at Harvard so that they could track the chain's progression toward the target.
  5. When and if the package eventually reached the contact person in Boston, the researchers could examine the roster to count the number of times it had been forwarded from person to person. Additionally, for packages that never reached the destination, the incoming postcards helped identify the break point in the chain.


Shortly after the experiments began, letters would begin arriving to the targets and the researchers would receive postcards from the respondents. Sometimes the packet would arrive to the target in as few as one or two hops, while some chains were composed of as many as nine or ten links. However, a significant problem was that often people refused to pass the letter forward, and thus the chain never reached its destination. In one case, 232 of the 296 letters never reached the destination.[2]

However, 64 of the letters eventually did reach the target contact. Among these chains, the average path length fell around 5.5 or six. Hence, the researchers concluded that people in the United States are separated by about six people on average. And, although Milgram himself never used the phrase "six degrees of separation", these findings likely contributed to its widespread acceptance.[1]

In an experiment in which 160 letters were mailed out, 24 reached the target in his Sharon, Massachusetts home. Of those 24, 16 were given to the target person by the same person Milgram calls "Mr. Jacobs", a clothing merchant. Of those that reached him at his office, more than half came from two other men.[3]

The researchers used the postcards to qualitatively examine the types of chains that are created. Generally, the package quickly reached a close geographic proximity, but would circle the target almost randomly until it found the target's inner circle of friends.[2] This suggests that participants strongly favored geographic characteristics when choosing an appropriate next person in the chain.

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