3.61 Degrees of Separation

That basketball game you really wanted to see is sold out? Relax, I have connections. You want the best price on a new car? No problem, my brother-in-law works at the dealership. Frustrated in your job search? Forget about patrolling the Internet — “networking” is to modern employment what “plastics” was to Benjamin. From entertainment to shopping to working — and pretty much anything else — it’s not what you know that counts, but who you know.

If connecting to the right people is the secret to success, the 1929 epiphany of Frigyes Karinthy provides some encouragement. Frigyes was the regrettably named Hungarian playwright who first suggested that every other person in the world is six or fewer steps away. His claim was even more remarkable when you consider that to place a phone call to someone in 1929, you had to go through an operator, using up one of your steps before you even got started.

This concept remained an obscure curiosity until 1990 when it was resurrected in a play written by John Guare. There exists an Erdos number, expressing the separation between mathematician Paul Erdos and others based on authorship of journal articles, but for some reason that didn’t catch fire with the general public. Few of us know much about the social scientists who have tested the separation idea in a multitude of ways, but everyone knows about the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Originally conceived by three buddies at Albright College in Pennsylvania, it has evolved into both a party game, and a charity.

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