Have you ever thought, “My mom has a good friend who is related to Siti Nurhaliza, so I could meet her one day since I have the connections?” Pretty cool, huh? Well, there’s a theory to explain this natural phenomenon, and it’s called the six degrees of separation. This theory states that everyone on this planet is just six or fewer steps away from one another.

With just six links, you can connect with anyone worldwide, whether your favourite celebrity or a long-lost friend. Let us dive deeper into the six degrees of separation theory to comprehend further and illustrate our social networks’ power.

**Expanding Your Social Network From 10 Friends to Millions**

First, we must comprehend the six degrees of separation theory and how our connections can rapidly multiply. Think about your network of friends. Imagine you have ten friends who know another ten people, and so on. At one degree of separation, you could reach 10 people, whereas at two degrees of separation, you would be able to reach 10 x 10 or 10² = 100 people. This is because each of your 10 friends knows another 10 people, enabling you to be connected to 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 = 100 people.

The diagram below provides a visualisation of this situation. Regard yourself as the red circle; the blue circles are your friends at one degree of separation, whereas the orange circles are the people you can connect to at two degrees of separation. Count the circles to ensure you can connect to 100 different people in just two steps!

Extend the situation above by imagining you now have 100 friends who know another 100 people. In just three degrees of separation, you would already reach 100 x 100 x 100 or 100³ = 1,000,000 people. With this logic, you could reach 10 billion people at five degrees of separation, which is higher than the world’s population!

This logic, however, has its flaws. To a certain extent, your friends and your friends’ friends might be the same people because, in reality, we share many mutual connections. This relates to clustering, where the more mutuals you share with your friends, the harder it is for you to ask for their help in getting a message across to someone you do not know.

Therefore, random weak connections or mere acquaintances can be important in your friendship network. For example, an acquaintance with whom you do not share any mutual connections might be able to help you secure a job interview through their connections. A close friend wouldn’t be much help since their connections are mostly your friends. So, maybe you shouldn’t unfriend Adam from dance class after all!

**Uniting Hollywood in Six Steps**

The six degrees of separation theory has applications in real life. It started to gain widespread recognition through its application in the Hollywood movie industry. In 1994, three college students, Craig Fass, Brian Turtle and Mike Ginelli, created a trivia game called *The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon*. The game involves connecting different actors to Kevin Bacon via the films in which they have appeared, coining the term Bacon number.

You might recognise the person inspiring the Bacon number, Kevin Bacon, from one of his latest movies, *The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special *(2022), in which he was cast as himself. At one time, he was assumed to be the centre of the entertainment universe, appearing in many hit movies such as Apollo 13, Tremors, Footloose as seen in Diagram 3 and many others.

The Bacon number is based on the idea that anyone working in Hollywood movies can be linked to Kevin Bacon through their roles in six steps. Thus, Kevin Bacon has a Bacon number of zero, his co-stars have a Bacon number of 1, those who have acted alongside his co-stars have a Bacon number of 2 and so on. If you are interested in having fun, visit The Oracle of Bacon’s website to visualise the connections between any two actors you choose.

The Kevin Bacon phenomenon is not limited to Hollywood, as researchers have conducted studies on local scenes to identify the Kevin Bacon of Malaysia. A study on the Malaysian actor network identified Pekin Ibrahim as the Kevin Bacon of Malaysia due to his strong ties with other actors, high likelihood of repeatedly collaborating with the same co-stars, and high popularity and social relevance in the Malay actor’s network. This emphasises that the six degrees of separation theory applies to all international film industries, underscoring the intriguing interconnectedness of social networks in various contexts.

**Tracing the Roots of the Six Degrees of Separation**

Given the universality of this concept, it is only natural to wonder where the concept or idea originated from. To do so, let us travel back to the early 20^{th} century when the notion of six degrees of separation began to take shape. The six degrees of separation concept arose from Frigyes Karinthy’s 1929 short story, where a group of people played a game to connect any person in the world to themselves through five others.

In 1967, a social psychologist named Stanley Milgram was interested in the small-world problem, where it was hypothesised that it only took a few steps to reach any person in the world. To test the concept from Frigyes Karinthy’s short story, he gathered a few hundred randomly selected people from Boston and Omaha to send letters to a target person working as a stockbroker in Boston. However, they could only pass the letters to people they knew single-handedly.

Surprisingly, instead of the letters taking dozens or even hundreds of steps to reach the target, it only took, on average, six steps. Due to this unexpected discovery, the phrase *six degrees of separation* began to surface and was then made popular by John Guare’s 1990 play.

**The Small World Theory in Action**

Understanding the interconnected nature of our world and social networks’ potential is fascinating. The fact that we can extend our connections to the whole world is mindblowing!

Furthermore, the six degrees of separation theory implies that our weaker ties can lead to stronger ties. Even though a network of connections is highly clustered with many mutual connections, we can still reach anyone via a few steps due to weak connections or random links. The friends you may contact only once a year could be the bridge for you to share information with someone important or could be your golden ticket to grab your dream job based on their connections. These weak ties can enhance social activities and widen your prospects.

Understanding the concept well can motivate us to connect, reach out and utilise our extensive network of ties. So yes, you could one day connect with your celebrity crush through a friend of a friend if you map out your contacts right. Now you understand how the saying “It’s a small world” works!