Avery Boulware, Campus Carrier Editor-in-Chief
It’s not just a song you get stuck in your head after a day at Disney World. “It’s A Small World After All” is a social phenomenon long considered a myth until social psychologist Stanley Milgram proved it to be true in the 1960’s.
Milgram’s “small world experiment” was based on the idea that any two people are connected by only a few “degrees of separation,” or someone who knows someone who knows someone, et cetera. And, though Milgram’s exact results were up for debate, the overall findings still ring true—an encouraging thought in a time of extreme social and political polarization.
Milgram began his experiment by giving a brown folder to a wheat farmer in Kansas. His task was to somehow get that folder to its final destination: Alice, a college student in Boston. The farmer was told to give the folder to someone that he thought may know Alice. Since Alice was a divinity school student, the farmer gave the folder to an Episcopalian minister in town. The minister then gave it to a friend in Boston, and the folder quickly found its way to Alice.
The experiment was repeated hundreds of times, and each exchange took anywhere between two and ten links from start to finish. The average number of links was five. This shocked the public. Before conducting the experiment, Milgram took a poll to find out how many links were thought to connect any two people. Some said 10, some said 100, some said it’s impossible to tell.
The experiment gained mainstream attention through the 1990 play-turned-film Six Degrees of Separation, in which one character is quoted with saying “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.”
The phenomenon even became a game of speculation concerning the entertainment world: “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” Because he had acted in so many films with so many stars, a game arose by trying to connect any given actor or actress to Kevin Bacon in under six links. Of course, this game worked in the 90’s when Bacon seemed to be the center of the entertainment universe. Unfortunately, the game is outdated now, but the jury is out on who the new center of the entertainment universe is.
Though “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” may be outdated, the small world phenomenon is not. In fact, it is more applicable than ever through social media. Of course, this is an important thing to remember when posting, because you never know who is going to see what you’ve shared. But it should also be a comfort. The small world phenomenon is what makes online dating, moving to a different city, or traveling less scary. It makes it possible for missed connections to become friendships, or for a lost teddy bear to find its way home. It is a small world after all.