Small World and My Random Cousin

Last night a friend invited me over to her place for a get together to celebrate the ending of passover and the ability to eat leaven bread. I, being only quasi Jewish, have been eating leaven bread for the entire passover period, but my religion is a story for another day.

I end up in this room, and she has a bunch of friends over, and we get to talking and somehow it comes up that my father was the president of J.Crew for a couple of years in the 90s, and she sparks up, stares at me and says “We must be cousins!”. Honestly, I was a little put off at first. I don’t know how to act. I’m not particularly close to my family, which is something I wish I could change, but finding random family across the country is weird, to say the least.

We went through a bit of history and by the end of the night we had solidified that we were indeed cousins, related through my grandmother on my father’s side. This was a very happy surprise, and while I wasn’t captured by it at the moment, the more I think about it the cooler it would be to have more family out here (3000 miles away from the rest of my family).

And while this is really cool, this leads in the rest of this post which is about the Small World theory. You better know it is as Six Degrees of separation. In which Stanley Milgram found that through an average of 6.1 mailings, someone in the middle of Nebraska or Kansas could connect to a person in Boston. You can read about the full experiment on the Wikipedia page.

My argument today is that world was much smaller than 6 degrees during the time of Milgram’s study, and that the world is only continuing to shrink over time (thanks mostly to technology).

First premise, the world was smaller when he did the study. The parameters of the Milgram study said that you should send the letter to the person you believe to most likely to have a connection to the Target. My belief is that people don’t know who is in each other’s address book. We might have a vague idea, but we are not the best at knowing how all these connections exist.

Sue, in Kansas, might have sent the mail to Paul in Pennsylvania because he is geographically closer to Boston. What Sue doesn’t know is that her friend Emily, two blocks down the road happens to have met the Target at a conference in New York. Paul doesn’t know the guy and has to forward the note on. Thus what was a one person connection is now greater than 1 connection.

Secondly, the world is getting smaller. With the invent of commercial air travel, I can easily move to California while still having a connection with my family in CT. I now know a ton of people in different parts of the country. I’m a one level connection to all my friends and family in CT.

If we are willing to allow connections to be electronic (working professionals who live in different countries but communicate via email), the computer industry has opened up our connections to many different networks. This doesn’t even include people who have met because of their online connection (online dating sites is an example).

I’m not going to venture a guess at the number of links between people, but I wonder if you started with Kevin Bacon, and counted the AVERAGE connection to him, you might have a better guess. Just a thought.

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