Culture’s Best Number: 6.6

Photo by Glenn Zucman — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

Myth becomes truth. World becomes smaller. Art becomes better.

As posted in our KArts Culture News, John Guare was right — we are all separated by Six Degrees of Separation. Really. It’s true. Isn’t this incredible?

Researchers Eric Horvitz and Jure Leskovec from Microsoft have examined data from the Microsoft Messenger network in 2006, which covered about half of the world’s instant message traffic at the time, or 180 million people.

These two are no live-at-home-with-nothing-to-do game players of Six degrees of Kevin Bacon. (Two of the weirdest Bacon numbers of separation: Ronald Reagan 2, Pope John Paul II 3; go figure.)

Horvitz and Leskovec expanded the approach employed in Stanley Milgram and Jeffrey Travers’ pioneering work in the 60′s, based on a study in Nebraska and Boston: how to find out the degree of social separation between any two individuals. Milgram and Travers estimated the number to be around 6. Six steps, on average, to get a connection between one person and another one.

From the instant message traffic, the number came in at 6.6: only 6.6 steps to find a connection between you and me.

Obviously, it is easy to knock the approach, especially where the use of a relatively new technology is the basis for extrapolating to any complete population figures. However, the implications are still startling — especially for the creators and audiences of arts, culture, and entertainment.

Think about the number this way: there are 6.6 steps between the creator of a work of art and each audience member for the work of art. In other words, the community of artist and audience is connected in a way that is not so different from our ancient ancestors.

The fantasy of bringing back the immediacy and natural flow between what happens on stage and what takes place in the audience is now not only within our reach (listen to Staniewski act on this ideal), but could be the driving force for increasing audiences and making art better.

Creating art for a community that you know is always going to be more immediate, more deeply felt, and have a greater impact than creating work for an unknown, transient mass. Similarly, as an audience member for an artist you know or with whom you have a connection, you are going to listen more carefully, be more open to the intent, and work harder to fully capture the expression.

The more we know, the more we understand. The more we know each other, the better art we create.

- Bill Reichblum


Want to participate in another Six Degrees experiment? Check out the solicitation on Facebook in the Just for Fun section.

With thanks to John Guare’s Ouisa Kittredge:

“I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find that extremely comforting, that we’re so close, but I also find it like Chinese water torture that we’re so close because you have to find the right six people to make the connection. It’s not just big names — it’s anyone. A native in a rain forest, a Tierra del Fuegan, an Eskimo. I am bound — you are bound — to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people. It’s a profound thought — how Paul found us, how to find the man whose son he claims to be, or perhaps is, although I doubt it. How everyone is a new door, opening into other worlds.”

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