Is it a Small World After All?


What do the Queen of England, a cabbie in New York and a second grade teacher in Italy have in common? No, this isn’t the beginning of a bad joke. A solution truly exists. Believe it or not, but they are all related by six degrees of separation. In other words,everyone in the world somehow connected through a chain of six people. This connection demonstrates the “small world phenomenon” coined by Stanley Milgram.

Milgram’s Experiment 1976

In 1976, Stanley Millgram conducted an experiment in which he randomly selected 300 participants in the Midwest to deliver an information packet to a stockbroker Boston. The only rule was that they had to send it to one person who they think would get the package closer to the destination. While only 64 of the 300 packets actually made it to Boston, they found that on average “path length” was 5.5. This led them to conclude that six steps connect everyone, and the small world phenomenon was born.

Milgram in Cyber Space

Fast-forward twenty-five years and several studies have demonstrated that this phenomenon remains the same. For instance, a 2010 study by the New York Times discovered that five steps connect 98% of people on Twitter. Similarly, Jure Leskovec and Eric Horvitz examined 240 million users for the average path of an instant messaging service, Microsoft Messenger. While the results of their study found that the average path length was 6.6, a number slightly higher than Millgram’s study, the results are shockingly similar. In his book Net Smart, Howard Rheingold states, “Social cyberspaces… are small world networks because they are electronic extensions of human social networks.” In other words, these networks of smaller networks closely mirror the connections in our everyday lives.


However, can we generalize the connection between online and offline contexts? Online, people may be more apt to try because the consequences are lower. Because they can hide behind the protection of their screens, perhaps they were more likely to take on a bolder persona and reach out.

Additionally, the extent to which instant messaging is a marker of a relationship may be blown out of proportion. Next, I believe the term “relationship” may have been too loosely defined. While I can strike up a conversation with my garbage man, does that really count him as being within my social network?  I think a similar offline study would need to be conducted to make stronger generalizations to compare Millgram to Leskovec and Horvitz.

Even more, the low completion rates of both studies should be noted. In Milgram’s study only a handful of letters made it to the target in Boston. Likewise, Leskovec and Horvitz. had to examine a staggering large number of participants to yield a small result of successful messages. Whether the reasons behind participants behavior stem from low motivation or a lack of connections, it is a broad claim to base an entire theory on such shaky evidence.

Lastly, USA Today found an unpublished archive sent to Milgram that revealed indicated low-income people’s messages didn’t go through. Subsequent studies investigating by Milgram found a low rate of completion as well as a social divide between racial groups.

Judith Kleinfeld, a professor psychology at Alaska Fairbanks University, went back to Milgram’s original research notes and found something surprising. It turned out, she told us, that 95% of the letters sent out had failed to reach the target. Not only did they fail to get there in six steps, they failed to get there at all. Milgram was a giant figure in his world of research, but here was evidence that the claim he was famously associated with was not supported by his experiments.

Rather than living in Milgram’s small world, we are living in a world where a select few elite and well-connected individuals reign. The rest of us are living in a “lumpy oatmeal” world looking through rose colored glasses.


In sum, there are a variety of reasons why we want to buy into the small world phenomenon. Perhaps the desire to feel connected to others makes us want to believe. Or maybe we want to believe in this urban myth for our own sense of security. Whatever it is, I think it needs to be reevaluated again. While our networks may reach not farther than we think, maybe it’s not a small world after all.


Posted on October 25, 2015, in Blogs and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. While it is interesting that we may somehow be connected to each other by six degrees, I cannot help to think of other theories that are similar.

    – We all came from Adam and Eve, so we are all essentially related. (No wonder why some places want couples to have a blood test first). 😉

    – Most of us all die within 600 miles from where we were born. (I cannot remember which college course I learned this in).

    But I would agree with you that it is not really a small world, just a small state. I have met people who knew my friends, and I have re-met past friends while here in Minnesota. I do not really believe that I am only six people away from Johnny Depp, although with my customer base, I could be, but then again, why would I harass my customers to find out, and what would I say to Johnny if I even had his attention? (I’m married, so I doubt that my husband would approve, unless he had a secret man crush that he never told me about).

    I feel that studies like this are a way to make some fun grant money to try out useless studies on the public’s dime. I would rather see studies done to help others make their lives better, but I am not in charge of the government’s purse. :/

  2. Interesting fact that many of us die within 600 miles from where we were born…

    I think that while there is a possibility that we all could be connected to Johnny Depp it should be taken with a grain of salt!

  3. So, my father got into genealogy and traced my family tree all the way back to William the Conqueror (of England)! I’m royalty! Woohoo!

    Then I study abroad in England, take a trip to Wales, go on a castle tour and get into conversation with one of the docents. I mention that I’m a descendent of William the Conqueror and he replied, “Yeah. So are the rest of us here.”

    Just as genealogy can both be true and misleading, so can the concept of the 6 degrees of connectivity. I’m not surprised if we can scrape the bottom of the connections of all the people we know, and then their connections… and so on until we make that link, but I also don’t know how useful this really is. Just because someone five degrees removed from me knows a famous person, it doesn’t mean that it is likely that I will be able to discover and then take advantage of that connection.

    I appreciate that you raise the concerns over the class and racial differences in Milgram’s findings. I had never heard that before! I appreciate his research, and I think this is a cool topic to mull over, but it’s important to also discuss the potential pitfalls and biases found in research. His findings are a great conversation starter, but to learn more we have to keep the conversation going.

  4. Chelsea Dowling

    Following in Allie’s footsteps, one of my ancestors happens to be Winston Churchill (England). Sorry – random fun fact about myself.

    As I read through your blog post, I thought back to when I was a kid. I lived in the country on about 200 or so acres of land. So it was pretty quiet. But I used to layout in the field at night and stare up at the star’s. I remember thinking how small the world seemed to me – it was like I could literally reach up and touch the stars. But when I started to travel via airfare – looking down at the small towns as we took off it was like looking at little ant farms.

    But who knows, did I have some sort of connection to someone in those places? I think in this case, one of the things I think of when it comes to this idea of inter-connectivity – is what happens with the connections we make? Do we make real connections with people or are we just passing by? This might be the ramblings of a crazy woman who only had one cup of coffee today – but when I think about the six degrees of separation, is it six degrees of separation from everything?

    Maybe it is, but we don’t know it because we avoid getting to know people to their cores… but here is something to ponder. I had a work dinner where we were to bring our spouse/significant other to this dinner. My boyfriend had just moved to the area from about three hours away. But at this dinner, it came up where he worked. One of my co-workers who I know by pretty much his name only – his wife happened to work at the same cheese factory that my boyfriend worked at (but 8 years prior). So of course here they were – talking and reminiscing about the owner.

    As we think about our connections and this idea of “a small world” – this is what truly rings to me. But if he hadn’t shared that personal information, no one would have been the wiser that there was any sort of connection.

  5. Stanley Milgram and the New York Times experiment and results are fascinating. But I’d like to add another reason why we believe and “participate” in a small world phenomenon – nostalgia. Not only about feeling connected, nostalgia brings a longing for easier, simpler times and for many of us that’s before the constant stimulation of technology.

    Like Chelsea I also felt connected to a small world as a child; my two-block neighborhood was my haven. Driving past my old place I see how tiny my “world” was and that yes, I was connected – and felt safe. And I realize it was vanilla – no diversity, no differences in class, and no concerns that someone new would burst into our bubble.

    Now that I’, 30 years away from that life, I look back fondly on that time, yet I know those “relationships” weren’t defined enough or prioritized among us that we remained friends. I also agree that “relationship” has been too loosely defined. This weeks readings were my favorite and I’m going to do my own six degrees experiment. Although I’m sure (as is Chelsea) that I’m not six degrees away from Johnny Depp.

    I am hoping for George Clooney though…

  6. Hah! How interesting that I have two classmates who are related to famous figures!

    Allie makes a good point on how useful scraping the bottom of the barrel to grasp a connection is. While it certainly is a fun fact that she is related to William the Conqueror it really doesn’t provide any practical application.

    Chelsea also makes a valid point about the nature of the relationship or the depth of the connection. With surface level connections we oftentimes overlook any potentials that may exist.

  7. Interesting piece and really got me thinking! I have grown up hearing the “six degrees of separation” theory. The discrepancies in the research techniques definitely suggest that, if we want to buy into it, the experiment needs to be redone.

    I never really thought of it as a “small world phenomenon,” but I like that term. While I was never quite sure if I believed “6 Degrees of Separation” was an accurate theory, I thought it was a magical idea. We could live in this giant world somehow have these connections. And as a side note, one function I often use on Facebook is the “People You May Know” when you are in “friend’s” Friend’s List. I think I check this less for a drive to feel “contentedness” than to circumvent or be prepared if there are any past love interests, disgruntled employees or anyone else who could otherwise embarrass me with the newly “friended” person. In reference to your post, I think in my many years only Facebook have I found an unexpected link maybe twice. (I am not counting people that I was simply unaware knew one another, but had logical reasons for knowing one another such local to one another, went to the same schools, worked together, etc.) I agree, maybe it’s not such a small world!

  8. For some reason your post reminded me of an experiment NYU researchers did with cardboard robots. I can’t find the exact details but Jonathan Zittrain talks about it in his TED talk. He describes the it as follows:

    An NYU researcher here took little cardboard robots with smiley faces on them, and a motor that just drove them forward and a flag sticking out the back with a desired destination. It said, “Can you help me get there?” Released it on the streets of Manhattan. Here is the chart of over 43 people helping to steer the robot that could not steer and get it on its way, from one corner from one corner of Washington Square Park to another.

    What I feel this emphasizes is both connectedness and a trust in strangers in a real world situation that’s much like what happens online these days on sites like ebay and Craig’s List. But how many New Yorkers ignored the robots? What if they didn’t have smiley faces on them? How do we decide to trust the faceless username on ebay and buy what they’re selling? Are user reviews enough? All of these are valid questions and I think they push us, like Rheingold’s text, to consider how things have changed as a result of technology.

  9. natashajmceachin

    For some reason this post immediately made me think of my job search a few years ago, and trying to use the few connections I had to get into good companies. To say the least, my “connections” never got me where I needed to be, and the Internet was my primary form of communication.

    If we were all so closely linked, everyone would have the job they want, find the man/woman of their dreams, and life a far more fabulous life than they’re currently living. Who you know can determine your success or failure, and a lot more of us would be a lot more successful if the world was truly as small as Milgram would like us to believe.

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