Six degrees of separation

Six degrees of separation is the idea that everyone is on average approximately six steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world, so that a chain of “a friend of a friend” statements can be made, on average, to connect any two people in six steps or fewer. It was originally set out by Frigyes Karinthy and popularized by a play written by John Guare.


Shrinking world

Theories on optimal design of cities, city traffic flows, neighborhoods and demographics were in vogue after World War I. These conjectures were expanded in 1929 by Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy, who published a volume of short stories titled Everything is Different. One of these pieces was titled “Chains,” or “Chain-Links.” The story investigated in abstract, conceptual, and fictional terms many of the problems that would captivate future generations of mathematicians, sociologists, and physicists within the field of network theory. 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. He posited that despite great physical distances between the globe’s individuals, the growing density of human networks made the actual social distance far smaller.

As a result of this hypothesis, Karinthy’s characters believed that any two individuals could be connected through at most five acquaintances. In his story, the characters create a game out of this notion. He writes:

A fascinating game grew out of this discussion. One of us suggested performing the following experiment to prove that the population of the Earth is closer together now than they have ever been before. We should select any person from the 1.5 billion inhabitants of the Earth – anyone, anywhere at all. He bet us that, using no more than five individuals, one of whom is a personal acquaintance, he could contact the selected individual using nothing except the network of personal acquaintances.

This idea both directly and indirectly influenced a great deal of early thought on social networks. Karinthy has been regarded as the originator of the notion of six degrees of separation.

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