Six Degrees of Separation

2010 May 4
by Grace Boyle

I’m mesmerized and inspired by six degrees of separation. It’s no myth. It’s the real deal.

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Like this one time I moved to Boulder alone and had no job so I picked up side work – anything I could (thanks Craigslist) like a photographers assistant and then working The Democratic National Convention. On the day of Obama’s acceptance speech at Invesco Field I was setting up the VIP booths (walking past Oprah, Kanye and Jimmy Carter) with a fellow new-friend on the event team for the week. We were talking about six degrees of separation and how crazy it is.

“Oh yea,” he muses, “here’s a good story for you…I was hiking the Patagonia trail and ran into anther guy. We started talking and we found out, all the way in South America, that I went to Middlebury College the same time he was living in Middlebury, VT. Crazy, right?”

My heart skipped a beat. I stifled a giggle.

“Wait, was that guy hiking the Patagonia trail named Evan?”

“Uh, yea.” He mentions his last name, I nod my head wildly, and yell, “I grew up with him. I knew he was hiking the Patagonia trail and thought, it might be him.” Per chance, right?

“He was my best friend when living in South America!”

Here we are, working a job for one week, with thousands of team members for one of the largest national conventions our country had in 2008, talking about his experience of a small world/six degrees of separation and I was in his small world story.

Then there’s that other time, I was half way around the world in Athens, Greece checking out the Acropolis and I walked past my friend’s best friend from college. We sort of just stared in disbelief at each other, then laughed. Four days later, I was leaving Greece to go back to Italy and in line at the Athens airport, there she was, same girl, in line in front of me. Again, disbelief and laughter.

As Stanley Milgram measured connectivity across the United States he “discovered that only a small number of connections, especially through hubs and portals like the world wide web, interlink the entire population.”

Six degrees of separation asserts that, “a person is a step away from people they know and two steps distant from people known by the people they know–thus the magic number six.”

We are connected, in a constant ebb and flow that is undeniable. It comes to a point, where I don’t even recognize borders or cross cultural differences. Networking isn’t a buzz word, it’s real life, it’s knowing people, it’s creating your life. The line bleeds across the edge, leaving no room for separation but rather connectivity.

What is your story of six degrees? Do you feel connected by it or confused?

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  • kimberleymosher

    I am constantly fascinated by six degrees of separation. I have had some great experiences travelling and realizing that I'm connect with people that are miles away from home. I've also been able to use this to my advantage when moving to a new city, travelling abroad and just meeting new people through work and professional settings. I'm the kind of person that likes to ask people about their lives, because you never know if you have paths that cross (or could cross). I like that because we are so connected through digital technology that six degrees often seems like much less than just six.

  • doniree

    My friends in Minnesota used to joke “you know everyone!” because I was always somehow connected to someone's high school friend or college roommate or we worked together. Networking simply for the sake of knowing people better has always been my mojo, and I think my life is connected more like four degrees than six degrees. Love it :)

  • HelloTaylor

    This is SO cool. When I started my new job, I discovered that I went to ELEMENTARY school with a couple of my co-workers. And they knew my boyfriend from middle school. It's crazy.

  • Mars Dorian

    That's sooo cool – I have no doubt that it works – and the crazy coincidence that tends to follow it. I was once in Australia and met a girl, and we had an awesome time. I had to go back to Europe and she had to stay. One year later, I met her in a Bar in my hometown, and she told me that she actually lives 3 blocks away from me – unbelievable – she didn't even know where I lived, but we somehow shared a similar group of acquaintances 😉

  • Jennifer

    I really really liked this post! 😀 Small world moments are so incredibly cool and it DOES make you think about how we are all connected… I know I've thought about it quite a few times. I've always found it so fascinating and amazing.

    I wish I had one off the top of my head that I could tell you about, but unfortunately I can't think of anything recent. I might do some more pondering and write a nice post next time it happens, though.

    Your post kinda inspired those thoughts again. :)

  • Grace Boyle

    @Kimberly It is fascinating, isn't it? Paths crossed are really quite amazing. When I moved to Boulder alone, the six degrees thing worked really well. You are also right that the digital age has helped us connect more than ever! Thanks for stopping by.

  • Grace Boyle

    @HelloTaylor That is SO cool! The webs keep on weavin' 😉

  • Grace Boyle

    @Mars Wow, your story is amazing. Whenever that happens with said person, I know there's some sort of reason we're supposed to be meeting. It's not coincidence, that's why I'm so fascinated with the six degrees piece because it's so real and moving.

  • Grace Boyle

    @Jennifer Aw, thank you. It's pretty personal to me, but I knew everyone at some point or another could relate. I would love to hear your own six degree stories as they come to mind and I'm happy my post helped invoke those thoughts. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Grace Boyle

    @Doniree I know, we so similar 😉 You're right it can be broken down into four, three or even two degrees. It's pretty effing amazing!

  • Aaron

    The simplest way I can think of explaining the math behind it is that if you know 50 people and that everyone in the world knows 50 people, there are 50 people that are one degree away from you and 2500 (50×50) that are two degrees away or less. And to get to six degrees that's 50^6 or 15,625,000,000 or 15 Billion, while there are only about 6 Billion people in the world. And there's a really good chance that everyone knows way more than 50 people.

    Malcolm Gladwell did a good job explaining why Lois Weisberg is one of the hubs that connect large networks.

    Unfortunately, I don't have any really cool South America-type stories. My small world stories mostly involve friends at college already knowing other friends at college.

  • Clare


    When I was in high school I had a pen pal that lived in Canada. She always talked about how she wanted to live somewhere in Colorado. After high school, we lost touch. Fast forward to three years AFTER college. My friend Hollie and I go out for drinks. I introduce her to a co-worker that happens to be at the same happy hour. Two months later, Hollie is at a Corepower yoga class and spots a girl she thinks is the co-worker that she met in passing that evening. She says to her, “Hey, I met you through Clare, right?” and the girl says, “Who?” and Hollie says my full name and the girl's jaw drops. The girl is my pen pal from Canada that I had never met.

  • Grace Boyle

    @Aaron Thanks for the additional explanation and link to Malcolm. I like the math piece and when you break it down like that, it's pretty fascinating! Thanks for sharing, I love it.

  • Grace Boyle

    @Clare Haha, woaah! Your story just blew me away, I had to re-read it to ensure I actually understood it but yes, see it gives me goosebumps everytime. I'm just so interested in how it works. Thanks for sharing and see you soon!

  • floreta

    You have some amazing stories!! I don't really have any profound examples of the 6 degrees of separation theory, though I don't doubt that its true. I guess I'll just have to wait for mine. Mind blowing.

  • Kim

    I love stuff like this. I have a few stories. My craziest story was when I was at Machu Picchu in Peru, when I hear, “Did you go to [my undergrad university]?” Turns out that on the most random of pathways in these ruins I ran into a woman whom I worked worth at the study abroad office. If I had been wandering around another part of the ruins or even been on another quiet, narrow pathway I would have missed her! Instead we reconnected and she was even looking out for jobs for me when I moved near her recently.

    Another story was when I lived in NYC I ran into an acquaintance from college in a random subway car late at night. I used to run into people I knew on the streets/in random businesses fairly often, but this was particularly weird because I'd actually been on the previous train, got off, and then reboarded the next one when we checked our directions. Technically I shouldn't have even been on that train, nevermind in that car!

    Less completely random is when a friend I met studying abroad and a friend from my Portuguese class ended up getting the same grant for a summer study program in Brazil and became friends. A smaller world, yes, but it's always funny when worlds collide like that.

    I also was planning on meeting up with a long-time online friend when we were both in San Francisco, and we ran into each other several hours before arranged, immediately after she'd just run into a girl whose house she'd lived in temporarily when both were much younger. She didn't even know the girl was living in SF. Needless to say, you never know who you'll run into, in any part of the world. :)

  • Grace Boyle

    @Floreta I'm not sure how or why these connections have happened – maybe it's because I love people, traveling and have lived in more than one place but it does feel pretty profound, always a bit bizarre too. Sometimes it's just about asking, seeing if there's a connection and usually, the conversation arises and it's totally by chance that we found out the connecting link.

  • Grace Boyle

    @Kim I love your stories! Thank you for sharing them – isn't it crazy the way we feel when the interactions happen and afterward, when we tell them? You're right, you just never know and that's why it's so fulfilling!

  • Sara Davidson

    And the three of us already played this game a month or so ago with Aaron Long and Matt Bindner!! Amazing is right. :) Great post, Grace!

  • Grace Boyle

    @Sara I know, so funny! Did you see recent Facebook pics with Doni, me and Aaron in Aspen? Love it!

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