Six degrees of separation: Are we socially close in a social network ?

Six degrees of separation: The title appears to be straight from a science fiction book, isn’t it? No it is not. It is a concept which is much used and applied world over in all the major social networks from Facebook to Twitter to Linkedin.

The central idea, as simple as it seems, is that all living beings on the planet are connected to each other in six steps or shorter.  It was first introduced by Frigyes Karinthy in the year 1929 and later became popular by a title play (A drama!) of the same name written by John Guare.

To be honest, I was struggling to start this topic. It just wouldn’t simply flow. As Ernest Hemingway once rightly quoted in his books “You just need to sit in the front of the typewriter and bleed”.

So for the question, are we all separated by six degrees?  Yes we are!

To fully understand the six degrees of separation, I would recommend a cursory understanding of giant components of the World Wide Web, the interconnected web links of what makes the internet today and the graph theory.

Useful note: Please read out blog post “The global brain and graph theory”

Roughly, about 5000 years ago, two giant civilizations existed. For all practical purposes, let us take these two civilizations as giant components. One component is the western hemisphere, the Americas land mass and the other one was the eastern hemisphere, the Europe –Asia land mass. These two giant components existed separately until the European explorers reached the American shores and the rest is history.

If you happen to read the book “Guns, Germs and Steel” written by Jared Diamond, the picture is quite vivid. The book had won the Pulitzer prize for general non-fiction and the Aventis prize for the best science book in 1998.

For Everything across the two landmasses had their own independent evolution right from the beginning until the Europeans arrived and the events were cataclysmic. Diseases spread and so did technology and they all overwhelmed each other and interestingly, later, they evolved together.

But now, we live in the modern well connected world. We can envisage this networked world as one single giant networked component. If you are reading this, I am sure you must be having friends and relatives who must have grown up in different parts of the world.  These friends and relatives would in turn have their own parents and their friend’s friends and relative’s friends.

The connections keep going on and yet we all live in the same networked component (the whole world!). People you might not have known before and you might not even known their language but still we all belong to the same networked component. Quite possible indeed. Our whole world becomes one giant networked component. Isn’t it. It is not same as it how it existed 5000 years ago.

Understanding Six degrees of separation

As we move forward in our discussion, apart from the giant networked components there are smaller networked components.These smaller networked components are all connected to each other and infact, the smaller components together make up one giant inter networked component. Using this logic, a technique called ‘Breadth –First’ search was introduced.

The breadth –first technique discovers the distances to connected people, one layer at a time. A layer is built of connected people as in a social network.

Please find the figure below, which depicts the ‘Breadth-first’ approach as well as the small components with layers leading to giant components.

The ' Breadth-First' approach
The ‘ Breadth-First’ approach

In each layer, people are connected to at least one person who is in turn connected to the previous or next layer. This is very much akin to how we have the ‘First level’, ‘Second level’ and ‘Third level’ contacts as in the Linkedin social network.

No wonder, this method is used to calculate in a most efficient way, the distances between people in a social network. Let’s look at how this works and how we can trace out distances between people in a social network.

  1. We first declare all our actual friends and relatives to be at layer 1 or distance 1 (See figure ).
  2. Then we find all their friends (Friend of friends) to be at layer 2 or distance 2.
  3. Then we find all their friends and declare them to be at or layer 3 or distance 3.
  4. (….)

We keep continuing in this way for successive layers, each of which represents the next distance out. This process or method can be applied to any social network which keeps building on layers over layers and all are interconnected.

As depicted in the figure, our Friend’s, Friend’s friends and relatives are  at layer 3 or distance 3, which indicates that the distance between “you” and this layer. It is understood that this layer is 3 lengths away from you.

Going by this logic, the six degrees of separation means, any two unknown persons on the planet are 6 (six) short lengths away from each other.

Six degrees of separation in popular social networks

In 2011, Facebook released a study, where the average distance between its 721 million users at that point in time was 4.74. This was a verified study using probabilistic algorithms on metadata. Interestingly, all its users were connected in a giant component like fashion. Source: Wiki

Linkedin operates in manner where all the users are  separated by distance lengths of First degree, Second degree and Third degree (as shown in the figure above). Each and every user on Linkedin is notified, within his or her profile status page, the degrees of connection they are away from each other.

Twitter’s users create a network by following other users. According to a study, the average distance is 4.67, this indicates that all people on Twitter are just 5 or less steps away from each other.

What do the Researchers say about the Six degrees of separation?

Researchers worldwide have conducted many experiments beyond the formal definition of the “six degrees of separation” and have found something qualitative about these giant connected components and the paths that connect the people are surprisingly short. It is an indeed a small world. This phenomenon is also called the “Small world phenomenon”.

Experimental study on the "six degrees of separation"
Experimental study on the “six degrees of separation”

The first experimental study was performed by “Stanley Miligram” and his colleagues in 1960’s.  Miligram did not have the kind of massive social network domains that exists today. With a meagre budget of $860, he set out to test his idea, that the world is connected through a global friendship network by a short chain of friends.

He randomly selected a batch of 296 people and gave them a set of instructions. He had asked the people to forward a letter to someone, a target. The target was a stock broker who lived in the suburbs of Boston.

He then asked the group of people to forward this letter to people whom they knew based on the first name as quickly as possible.  The instructions contained some personal information, the address and the occupation of the target. Each letter, thus passed through many hands in sequence and in succession and finally zeroed in on the stock broker outside Boston.

There were totally about 64 chains. It took 64 chains in reaching the target and then the median length among them was found to be six(6).  In other words, there were six layers, before it finally reached the target. This was the same number, that 20 years later had the title in Guare’s play.

Another experiment was conducted in 2002 to support the Milligram’s original estimate. Duncan watts and his colleagues set out on a global scale to prove this again. Duncan watts was a physician turned sociologist. Duncan and his colleagues recruited more than 98000 people from all over the world.  He used email as the mode of communication this time.

The set of people were asked to send an email message to specific targets (persons) around the world. They were asked to forward the email to someone whom they knew within their close circles and who might in turn know the targeted person. Each person was randomly assigned to a target from a list of eighteen targets in 13 countries.

Once again, to everyone’s surprise, it took roughly six steps (on average) to get the email to reach the targeted person.

Relevance of six degrees of separation

There are however some questions that need to be asked on the relevance of the six degrees of separation and its usage.  Its applications and usage are widespread through out the world.

One is “How useful are the short paths to people in our society?

After knowing that the short paths exist, does that mean that people are ‘socially’ close to you. These are the caveats that come along, that we need to carry with us. But then, this experiment is crucial in understanding how social networks work.

What we need to understand through these short paths in social networks is that even though we may have six step connections to all the influential people in the world  (for example, our six-step connection to the American president, Barrack Obama) in reality, the case is different and take it at ‘face value’.

But having said that, six degrees of separation concept, benefits us in many ways. One in terms of the potential speed with which information reaches different sections of the people, the potential opportunity it presents for people to connect and understand each other. There are numerous applications both scientific and people centered  that can be evolved going forward.

Another important aspect is to understand other contagions (for example, diseases)  and how quickly it spreads in our society.

For further resources, please go through the following links below:-

  1. An experimental study of the “Small world phenomena” by Stanley Miligram and Jeffrey Travers
  2. Linked :How Everything is Connected to Everything Else and What it Means for Science, Business
    and Everyday Life: A book from Albert Barabesi. You can buy online from Amazon !
  3. Six degrees urban myth from Psychology today
  4. Six degree theory tested on Facebook
  5. Six degrees of separation – Fact or fiction – ABC news
  6. Microsoft proves that there are six degrees of separation between us – The Guardian

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Accepting responsibility at work and in life

Accept responsibility

Accepting responsibility at work and in life.


When you want to succeed at work and in life, you need to develop the capacity to be yourself. Very often when things go wrong, we have the tendency to put the blame on others.

Actually, accepting responsibility does not mean putting the blame on ourselves. Accepting responsibility lies in the fact that you are taking ownership of your problem.

You are assessing the situation and identifying the areas where improvements need to done so as to make effective changes within your life and at work. By accepting responsibility and making things right, you are sure to get a better outcome when you do the same thing again, without putting the blame on others.


Accepting responsibility, wholeheartedly
Accepting responsibility wholeheartedly

Realizing it and accepting it wholeheartedly

We need to realize that we are responsible for our own success in the work place. We need to accept the fact that whatever you are and whatever you want to be, is entirely in your hands. Only when you accept it wholeheartedly, you will be able to get rid of the bad habit of putting the blame on others.

When certain things have not happened in your career or certain promotions have not come in at the right time, it is easy to put the onus on others. But if you examine closely you always had the choice, to own up and do the right things that are required.

You alone are responsible for your own state of affairs and being happy or unhappy.

The day when you realize this, it will be a new beginning for you towards your journey of accepting responsibility at work and in life.


Accepting responsibility
Do not find excuse for failures

Do not find an excuse for your failures

A good thing to always remember is that we are here in the organization to perform our duty and we are being paid for it.

Many a times it happens that we just want to create an excuse for our failures. We just don’t want to fail in the eyes of others and often cite reasons to pass the blame on to them.

However, if we accept the responsibility and complete our tasks, we will be in more control of ourselves and we would start achieving what we wanted to do in our professional lives. We just need to accept the assignments and perform them willingly, happily and enthusiastically.

It boils down to say that you just take the idea and run with it rather than be told what to do with it and put them into practice.

Top performers when they see the job that needs doing, they just go ahead and perform it.

The difference between the top performers and those who accomplish little lies in the fact that top performers assume to choose responsibility.


Maturing emotionally
Maturing emotionally

Maturing emotionally

Another aspect of people who accept responsibility is that they mature emotionally. One important aspect is to remain positive and accept failures and learn from them. It is the expression of adulthood.

You also know that things can be done differently and there are other alternatives. Accepting responsibility also means to take help from others. It is good to seek feedback in areas where we need improvement and have a support network.

You will not feel threatened when you find that others in your team have a better solution than yours. You happily accept it and run with it. The more a person accepts responsibility and initiates actions the more he grows into greater levels of autonomy.

Having accomplished simple things, the person wants to achieve difficult work challenges worthy of his or her talents. Success builds on success.


Talk to your Manager with a development action plan

Accepting responsibility also means that you have a plan to implement the much needed changes which can bring improvements into your current situation or work projects.

Have a monthly feedback session with your manager and discuss with him or her that you want to take up additional projects.

Before approaching, make sure you are up to date on your current projects. Accept the feedback from your manager with a positive attitude and discuss ways with him or her on how you can improve.

Discuss your career goals with your manager and how your career goals are aligned with the objectives of the company.

Follow up with your manager with a development action plan on how you want to implement the changes for your improvement areas.

Develop an action plan by identifying the changes that need to be brought in for your developmental areas. Have a workable timeline which covers both, on the job learning as well as classroom learning.


Accepting responsibility
Valuable lessons from experience

Learning valuable lessons through experience

Another useful outcome of accepting responsibility is that it teaches us valuable lessons through experience. From experience we learn what kind of actions produce fruitful consequences.

It only comes through experience and cannot be taught in a classroom. As you take in more responsibility, you become more secure more confident and start taking risks and initiatives. This makes the person evolve to become a more confident self starter without close supervision.

Sometimes we learn a lot through failure and we clearly understand what went wrong. Accepting responsibility also means sharing the lessons learned with others at work so that they can take up effective action.

Seek out areas where the company needs help and volunteer. Taking part in the company’s extracurricular activities shows you are proactive and willing to contribute meaningfully for your organization as well as for your own growth.

Become an expert in your area of expertise and master your craft.


Finally, accepting responsibility is a choice you make for yourself autonomously. It empowers you and gets you nearer to your goals at work as well in life.

If you feel this write up has benefited you, please feel free to share it on social media and send in your comments.


Good read on the same topic from Responsibility and blame are two different things, Psychology today.

Also read, Cultural diversity in the workplace


Hope you found this article interesting and useful. If yes, then please do share us.