Three Things … Because There’s Always Three

So, two days ago, I made a mistake. It’s shocking, I know, but it happens. (Often, as a matter of fact.)

I was the weekend guest author on “The Writer’s Block,” a Facebook event in which people can post questions that I struggle to answer coherently. It’s a fun experience, but generally I’m not content to just answer questions. I also like to ask them – which is how the aforementioned mistake occurred. I had three questions (of course) that I thought I had posted on the discussion site, but, in fact, had posted on my personal Facebook page. I figured most people would not even see the erroneous posts on my page or respond. Imagine my surprise when the complete opposite occurred.

One of the questions was regarding non-fiction and how many people read it habitually. As of right now, 181 people “liked” the post and 127 responded. And when I say “responded” what I mean was the most delightful, fully fleshed-out kind of responses detailing what they are reading, what they like and why. (By the way, I am totally stealing the suggestions and compiling a reading list). But, what struck me more so than the fact that I had so many smart, fabulous friends, was how just one question brought together so many people from such disparate parts of my life in a discussion about one of my favorite things: literature.

These are people who never would have met or chatted otherwise. It was an amazing thing to see occur and it illustrated something that I’ve been contemplating a great deal lately – interconnectivity, globalization and how social media has allowed for the creating of a global village. (Because, I know everyone thinks about this sort of stuff in their free time, right?)

I am honored to be one the presenting authors at the 2015 Kansas Book Festival. And, as is always the case, I have plans to do a presentation that is not only about my most recent novel, All We Lack, but also about the impetus for its creation. (As background, All We Lack is about four people on a commuter bus between New York City and Boston who, though they don’t know it, are intimately connected to each other through social media, their everyday interactions and lies.) The idea for the story stemmed from a personal experience in which I was looking at my Facebook friends list and was shocked to see how many of my friends were “friends” with people with whom I knew for a fact they had nothing in common. Or, did they?

The answer might surprise you.

You’ve likely heard of the game, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” The premise is that, within six actors or less, you can connect everyone in Hollywood to Kevin Bacon. Don’t believe me? I’m going to link Kevin Bacon to Vivien Leigh (who played Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind” and died in 1967). Ready? Vivien Leigh was in A Street Car Named Desire with Marlon Brando, who was in Missouri Breaks with Jack Nicholson, who was in A Few Good Men with … you guessed it … Kevin Bacon. Don’t believe me? Then “you can’t handle the truth!” (Sorry, I just couldn’t resist.)

So clearly you can do that with famous people. Neat. But it turns out, you can do it with us commoners, too. The “Six Degrees of Separation Theory” is based on the premise that you can connect anyone on the planet to any other person though a chain of acquaintances numbering no more than five intermediaries. The concept was actually first suggested in 1929 as the plot for a short story called “Chains” and/or “Chain-Links” (I’ve seen it referred to by both titles, though the version I have is titled “Chain-Links.)

The story was written by a Hungarian author named Frigyes Karinthy and proposed a “game” in which everyone could be linked to everyone else though six connections – hence creation of what came to be known in pop culture as “The Six Degrees of Separation.”

It was a fun theory, but just that – a theory. So, as with any good theory, several really smart people decided to test it. There were mathematicians, sociologists and social network theorists from places like MIT, IBM, and Harvard. One of the most famous and controversial figures in this discussion was Stanley Milgram, a social scientist who, in 1967, published an article in Psychology Today titled “The Small World Problem.” In the article, he detailed his study in which he randomly selected people in the Midwest to try to get a package to a person unknown to them in Massachusetts. Based on the Massachusetts recipient’s name, occupation and general location, the originators of the package were asked to send the package to someone they knew on a first name basis and who they believed would have the best chance of knowing the ultimate recipient personally. The friend who received the package would do the same and so on until it finally was received by ultimate recipient. On average, Milgram determined it took, on average, between five and seven intermediaries.

There were criticisms to the experiment, but it still caught the attention of the general public. So, fast forward to 2001, at which time a Columbia University professor named Duncan Watts did the same thing, but this time with an e-mail message. And what he was interested in looking at was “The Network Theory” – how networks form and work in society. Whereas Milgram focused on the United States, Watts took his study internationally (18 intended recipients in 15 different countries.) As later detailed in his 2003 book Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, he found that the average number of intermediaries was … you guessed it, six.

So, what does this have to do with the price of tea in China? Well, aside from the fact that through social media, I have a few friends in China who could tell me immediately the cost of tea and, if I asked, ship it to me, it means that all of us are interconnected in ways we can’t even imagine. The people who commented on my post, who discussed their favorite non-fiction books and possibly ultimately “friended” each other would likely never have met had it not been for social media.

According to a Facebook study in 2011, of the 721 million users at the time, 4.74 degrees is all it took to link you to any other Facebook user. Add to that connections on LinkedIn and Twitter and … well, you see where I’m going with this.

But, back to my friends and our unexpected interaction. In 2007, two researchers, Nicholas Chrisakis and James Folwer put forward the theory of … get ready for it … “Three Degrees of Influence.” (Chrisakis has a great TED Talk on this.) What they were studying was the influence of social networks on people’s behavior, i.e., our influence on our friends, who influence their friends, etcetera. These three degrees are related to mood and perceptions, and suggest that what we say, post, or put out there into the ether, can and does impact people we have never met.

Long story short, what we say, what we write, what we do matters. It’s something to keep in mind as we go about our social media days and link people together.

And for the record, I have a Bacon number of three.

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4 thoughts on “Three Things … Because There’s Always Three

  1. Darn- now I need to go figure out my Bacon number. I loved the post about non-fiction- it reminded me of some of my favorite books and gave me others to add to my list! The Midwest>MA experiment makes me think of Name That Tune- i.e. “I bet I can get a package to someone in MA in three steps…” :). I LOVE social media for the connections I make and the ideas I read about. I’ve lived in smaller towns (~20,000 people) my whole life, and while I travelled a lot as a teen and have been able to do more now, for years my main connections to the wider world were the people I knew. Social media opens that up, exposes me to all sorts of ideas, and allows me to better define my opinions and broaden my knowledge base.

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  2. GREAT post, Sandra! I,too, have always been fascinated by these concepts. Discovering, usually later, how one came to be in someone’s life, in 3-D or virtually, has blown my mind many times—too many times to chalk it off to mere coincidence. Love the history behind it all. Do not know my Bacon score with you, but it’s probably a 3 or 4! Although…in a past life I had a great aunt who was a detective. Hmm, could it be? LOL

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