Allison Loudermilk

It's a Small, Small World -- in Bangkok

My husband is in Bangkok right now. Last night, he unexpectedly bumped into a guy I grew up with. Neither of them live there. Both were visiting Thailand on business, a place that neither of them visits regularly. Oh, and did I mention that blogger Robert Lamb happens to be over there this same exact week, too? Such are the coincidences that finally led me to do a little digging on Stanley Milgram's small world/six degrees of separation theory.

The social psychologist probably more famous for his shocking experiment (see Josh's posts on horrific psychological experiments) was actually the guy behind what we now know as six degrees of separation. Well, he and the playwright John Guare, who wrote a play in the 1990s titled "Six Degrees of Separation."

Milgram said that everybody in the United States is connected to one another through a maximum of six steps. Kevin Bacon had nothing to do with it back then, although if you want to play that game, you can at the Oracle of Bacon. Back in Milgram's day, there was no such thing as e-mail or Facebook, none of the electronic social networking tools that have cast a vast web across humanity. In Milgram's time, it was kind of surprising if someone from Maine was connected to someone from Nevada in only six short steps. Today, not so surprising, as Duncan Watts and the Columbia Small World Project, among others, have discovered.

So if it's no big deal, why do people like me keep bringing it up? Well, because network paths affect us. Pardon me while I state the obvious, but it really is about who you know (although "know" is a relative term in the age of 1,000 Facebook friends). As Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter writes, a short path can mean a better job for you. On the flip side, it can also mean a short path to infectious disease. But there's more at play in network theory than that. We'll have to save it for another post.

And I did learn one thing. The whole Bangkok story? It seems like just a coincidence, rather than a direct example of the small-world theory. I kind of feel like Alanis Morrissette missing the mark on irony.

Read more about networking with everyone in the whole wide world, plus a little something about science, at HowStuffWorks.com:

Are social networking sites addictive? Can Facebook make me rich? Are people more honest or dishonest on social networks? 10 Science Experiments That Changed the World