Six Degrees of Separation. Now down to 3.57. Does it matter?

Six degrees of separation is fascinating especially when you think you are only six links, including yourself, from being connected to everyone in the world.  Facebook studies show of its 1.5 billion users the degree of separation on average is down to 3.57, among its users.  The explosion of social media has multiplied our connections overnight.  In thinking about this I thought, does it matter?  How does this affect me?



“The six degrees of separation was the brain child of Hungarian writer, Frigyes Karinthy.  In 1929, Karinthy published his forty-sixth book, a collection of short stories entitled Everything is Different. The book is now out of print and apparently lost to us.  In that collection was a story entitled Chains that deserves our attention.

In 1929 the estimated world population was 1.5 billion. (In 2017 it is 7.4 billion) In Chains, Karinthy offered a bet that his fictional character could name any person among the earth’s inhabitants and through five acquaintances, one of which he knew personally, he could link to the chosen one.  The character immediately linked a Nobel Prize winner to himself.  In another example, he tries to link a Ford factory worker to himself.  “The worker knows the manager in the shop, who knows Ford.  Ford is friendly with the general director of Hearst Publications, who last year became friends with a friend of mine.  Five degrees adding himself makes six.”

-Stowe Boyd-Everything is Different

From this the six degrees of separation was born.  Decades later in 1967 Stanley Milgram, who did groundbreaking investigation into social networking confirmed Karinthy’s magic number of five. (add yourself makes six) His study was getting random people in the Midwest cities to pass a letter through their personal contacts, heading toward one of two Massachusetts residents.  At completion, the number of hands offs was 5.5.  Now Everything is Different. Business and Personal relationships are discovering the latent power of social networks.

That’s it for the history lesson. While this is interesting information several comments and questions come to mind:

7.5 Billion is a lot of people.  The thought of being connected to all those people by six degrees makes me feel a bit overwhelmed. How does this affect me? How does this affect you?  How does this affect our relationships?

Jeff Rodrigues, a social networking specialist said 97% of participants in a study said they feel more connected now than ever before.  Older responders say it’s due to email and mobile phones.  The younger generation say Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and text messaging reduced the degrees of separation. We are more connected even if its tangentially.

But are we connected?    How does this affect me?

Well, I’m an independent sales rep working for myself and my manufacturers.  I rely heavily on my professional network, many of whom are my friends to help me meet potential clients.  I rely on LinkedIn to see where my contacts are and to seek new potential connections.  When I see people I know on LinkedIn connected to someone I want to meet, I reach out and ask about the person. Many times, when I do, they don’t know them nor even remember linking in.  How is that helpful? 

Saying you are six degrees is nominally valuable if you don’t have a strong connection with someone in those degrees.  I like LinkedIn because its mostly pure business.  It is a true resource not an opinion statement, not a keeping up with the Jones’s thing.  It has a targeted purpose. Generally, people respect this rule of engagement.

I read articles saying how awesome social media is, but I believe there is an upside and a downside.   Great for advertisers, advocacy, good sourcing tools, making announcements—not so great for teenagers or anyone whose self-esteem is rooted in how many “likes” they get on social media. The UCLA brain mapping center used an MRI scanner to image the brains of 32 teenagers as they used a social media app. Researchers watched the activities inside different regions of the brain and found areas activated by “likes” with the brains reward center.

This area was especially active where teens saw how many “likes” on their own photos. The fact is people want to be liked and accepted. It’s also the risk one takes of putting something out there to people that are simply acquaintances.  What happens when that same teen posts a picture they think is awesome and no one likes it?  That’s the downside. One expert said “social media is not an empathic place.” It’s not a self-esteem builder.

Yes, it’s nice to see old friends on Facebook until it isn’t. Until it gets competitive, until it hurts, until someone doesn’t wish you happy birthday, or until people start posting about their exotic vacations that you could never afford.    I often wonder why people feel the need to do that, to let 250+ of their “closest” friends/acquaintances know where they are, what they are eating, and who they met. Doesn’t it sound rather ridiculous when you really think about it? That 250+ people would care where you went on vacation or what you ate? Furthermore, the question is why people are motivated to post it anyway? As one celebrity put it “I deleted Facebook because I thought everyone was having more fun than I was.” 

Our new normal is social media. I get it.  I am still old school in many ways.  Certain social media platforms remind me of the family pictures on the show “Super Nanny”. The picture of the family where everyone is smiling.  You continue to watch the show and the people are at each other’s throats.   A picture is exactly that, a picture…a point in time.  Makes you wonder what’s really going on with people.

In my opinion, there is nothing better than sitting down and having a cup of coffee with friends, clients and colleagues. This is where you build relationship. You hear their words. You watch their body language.  You have live conversations. You determine the level of involvement you will have with this person.  This is where you make commitments small and/or large. I will always make the effort to meet my clients/friends face to face because it is through this effort that I build relationship. It’s not the same with a WebEx. The same holds true of people I meet on a personal level.

 It’s where you build trust and accountability. I have a relatively small, tight network of people in business I trust completely. They in turn have like networks.  It’s via this network of trust that we grow each other’s business.  In any relationship, there is the law of reciprocity.  I will help you and you will help me because we have integrity and we honor our commitments.

You can lose your reputation, your credibility in a short period of time if you are not good for your word.  You can lose your reputation in minutes if the wrong picture or comment is posted on social media. It can change your life.  Make your choices wisely. Build your networks wisely. Choose your people wisely.  It will serve you well.

Regardless of the six degrees of separation, increased by social media- there is a loneliness’ in it.

In Atlanta we claim Hartsfield Jackson, the world’s largest and busiest airport in 2017. I travel frequently and spend a decent amount of time in Hartsfield Jackson. It’s interesting to me when I walk down the terminal, the number of people staring at their phones.  In the gate areas, they are texting, reading Facebook, focused on their devices with this expression I can’t even describe.  They don’t even look up.  How I feel lonely in such a large, crowded place troubles me…but I do.   I’ll be sitting next to someone at the gate. They may be my neighbor’s best friend. They could be a second connection to me on LinkedIn. They could attend my church. Who knows?  We don’t look up, we don’t smile at people so much anymore and we stay hidden behind our walls of technology.  Like none of it can wait-it is that important that we monitor our devices.  We are that important or that gun-shy, to even attempt smiling at a stranger or strike up a real conversation.  We don’t take that moment to engage another human being.  It feels wrong to me. 

Six degrees is interesting. I think old school me would rather have an immediate one or two degrees of people who support and love me.  People I can call in the middle of the night.  People I trust with my vulnerabilities, who will hold space with me and presence when I need it.  People I trust who trust me back. People whose word has meaning.   That takes time, vulnerability and effort.  It doesn’t come with a keystroke.  A friend and I talked about this frequently over the years.  He would hold up two fingers and say “I am lucky. I can use one hand, I have two people I can call in the middle of the night.”  Yes, he is lucky and thank God, so am I.

In the midst of all this accelerated change I will end with this old Saab commercial that I love so much.

“Find your own road.”

Until next time.

Sat nam.