What Do You Pretend You Don't Know?

A perfect phrase - so succinct it sums up an idea and becomes a popular culture soundbite, embraced by celebrated pundits, social commentators and journalists, rendered instantly recognizable by hundreds of thousands of people... yet most of us miss the point and don't really know what it means!

Not a philosophical idea, it's a statistical truism - four words that describe the phenomenon of a shrinking world where any random two people can discover a link through a chain of six acquaintances. It identifies an emotion that didn't have a name before.

"Six Degrees of Separation," began as a stageplay, based on a true story of a young black man who scammed an upscale New York couple into believing he was Sindney Poitier's son and a classmate of their children. It became a movie, directed by Fred Schepisi, with Stockard Channing in an Oscar-nominated performance.

In pop culture it's become a popular party game for movie junkies: “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”, the rules of which are fairly simple: name any other actor in the history of film and connect him or her to Kevin Bacon through the movies they’ve appeared in. For example, silent film star Mary Pickford is separated from Bacon by only three degrees—Pickford was in Screen Snapshots with Clark Gable, who was in Combat America with Tony Romano who, thirty-five years later, was in Starting Over...with Kevin Bacon.

According to a recent article in The New Yorker, Kevin only ranks 668th for “connect-edness” among actors. (The top fifteen includes Robert Mitchum, Gene Hackman, Donald Sutherland, Rod Steiger, Shelley Winters and Burgess Meredith.)


But it’s when the concept is extended to the world outside of the movies that things really get interesting.

The Italian physicist Guglielmo Marconi surmised that, even without his invention of the wireless radio, every person on the planet was already connected by 5.83 persons. In the late 1960s, college research on Marconi’s idea used a chain letter and sophisticated statistical analysis to prove the web of connections and discovered that “six degrees" doesn’t simply mean that everyone is linked to everyone else in just six steps. It means that a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those few!

Who is your Significant Connection? Who do you KNOW that can get you out of the Great Cloud on Unrelatedness and into Where It’s (Presumably) Happening? Doesn’t this imply that every relationship, however seemingly insignificant, is important to your place in this world?

If you have to find the right six people to make the connection between you and the rest of the human universe, can you afford to severe a single link—or
fail to reach out and make new ones?

—help! author unknown