Since the dawn of humanity, people have needed to group together in order to survive. From prehistoric family groups to today’s mega-cities with millions of people living in them, our history and development as a species has been due to the collective effort to survive and thrive. And in this effort, each and every one of us is weaving our own network of contacts, which in turn have their own. And today, when we live in a globalized and interconnected society through the networks, it is not impossible to think that we could actually get in touch with anyone.

This thinking has led some researchers to come up with different theories that try to reflect the possibility that we are in fact all interconnected. One of the theories that have been used in this respect is the theory of the six degrees of separation , which we will talk about next.

The theory of the six degrees of separation: origin and basic idea

The so-called theory of the six degrees of separation is a theory that states that any person can be interconnected with any other person in any part of the world through a chain of contacts that does not exceed six people, so there are only five points of connection between them.

Although it seems to be a proper idea of a globalized world like the one of today’s society, the truth is that it is a theory that has its origin in the proposal for the first time in 1929, being its author the writer Frigyes Karinthy and appearing in his publication Chains (cadenas, in English).

The original idea makes sense and is viable: we know a large number of people throughout our daily lives (proposing later authors such as Watts around a hundred), and these in turn will have as many others. In the long run, the number of interconnected people would grow exponentially making it easier and easier for us to find common contacts with the target subject, and over time if we wanted to send him a message it would be enough to follow that chain.

Social connection points

However, the fact that only six stops are required is more difficult to prove. The number of “jumps” in particular was the subject of heated debate until 1967, when the well-known psychologist Stanley Milgram (the same as Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority) carried out a series of experiments trying to solve the unknown, in what was called “the small world problem” .

In one of these, Milgram provided different people at random with a series of letters to be delivered to an unknown person in Massachusetts, only through their acquaintances. While many of the letters never arrived, partly because many participants did not pass them on or their contacts did not continue to try, in the cases where they did, an average of six steps was counted.

Milgram’s experiments in this regard may be unrepresentative, but further research was subsequently carried out (and some relatively recent, such as one in 2001) that seems to show that the number of jumps required, although not absolute, is still around six jumps on average.

Theory in the information society: six steps (or clicks) away

Time has passed since the theory was first proposed, and many social and technological advances have appeared since then. Among them we can find the emergence of the Internet and social networks , which facilitate interaction between people around the world. Thus, nowadays it can be even easier to establish contact between people who are very distant and different from each other.

Moreover, the use of these networks allows not only contact, but also the calculation of the separation between people: LinkedIn or Facebook are examples of this. However, the data obtained show that the theory of the six degrees of separation may have evolved over time, and the distance may be much smaller today. For example, a study by the Universitá degli Studi di Milano and several Cornell researchers in 2011 shows that the distance between two people on Facebook is 3.74 people .

Other difficulties

We cannot fail to point out that, although this theory may be relatively well founded, we must take into account that there are a great number of variables that may interfere with the specific number of jumps: it is not the same to come into contact with someone from the same city as from another continent, or who has another language.

The difficulty will also vary depending on whether or not the person is more or less well-known at a popular level, or whether or not they share a hobby or job. Another problem is found in the media: today we can generate more diverse contacts thanks to new technologies , but those who do not have them do not enjoy this option.

Finally, it is different to contact someone in a city than in a town with few inhabitants, and if we go to the extreme we may find it much more difficult to contact a subject in situations such as war, extreme poverty or famine. Or if one of the two extremes (the one who initiates the search for contact or the objective of this contact) is a member of an indigenous tribe or a culture isolated from the rest of the world

The usefulness of this theory

It is possible that the reading of this theory may seem interesting at an informative level, but the truth is that it is not just a curiosity: it has its usefulness in multiple sectors.

One of them is that of networks in the world of business , so that it is possible to study how to form portfolios of clients and contacts that can facilitate them. Also in marketing and advertising it could be applied, when taking into account the formation of chains of contacts when favouring the sale of a service or product. Well-known word of mouth can also be linked to this factor

Finally, we can also find the theory of the six degrees of separation useful at the educational level: it can be used and taken into account for the transmission of prosocial values, prevention programmes (for example, sex education, drug prevention or prevention of gender violence) or information.

Bibliographic references:

  • Watts, D.J. (2006). Six degrees of separation. The science of networks in the age of access. Editorial Paidos.