Monday, November 16, 2009

Two degrees in London

I've always been intrigued by the theory that everyone in the world is somehow connected to everyone else. I'm not sure exactly where or when I started believing in the "Kevin Bacon" theory of connectivity, but it was long before the actor came out against not the idea, per se, but his name's attachment to it. You'd think that he would follow the ideology that "any PR is good PR," but evidently, this particular topic is not one of his favorites.

As I was reading Duncan Watts' Six Degrees - struggling to get through the mathematical mumbo jumbo, I might add- I kept thinking about my own example of the paradox. My story isn't as exciting as being less than 6 degrees away from say, the Dalai Lama or the late Princess Diana or the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines (of which, I really am only 2-3 connections away - we share a college professor who became a good friend/mentor to me), but it seems emblematic of the issue at hand.

My anecdote takes place in London, England, where I spent a too-short weekend while studying abroad during my junior year at SMU. As a lifelong Girl Scout, I have always wanted to visit as many of the World Centers as possible but particularly London's Pax Lodge. So when a girlfriend and I took the Tube across the English Channel we naturally made a special trip to visit the center of Girl Scouts/Girl Guides in England. How the trip relates to the reading is that while visiting the Center, we met a few volunteers and mentioned that we were SMU students from Texas who were studying abroad in Paris. One of the young ladies mentioned that a friend others from high school was currently attending SMU. Since SMU is a relatively small school of about 4,000 undergraduates and 6,000 graduates, we asked where she was from and for the name of her friend. To make a long story short, it turned out that her high school classmate was one of our best friends - and he happened to be studying in London while we were in Paris. The two hadn't seen each other since high school, so we took her name and number and promised to e-mail it to our friend. I'm not sure if the two ever met up with each other, but we did try to get the two in touch with each other.

Though I thought at the time that this was nothing more than an amazing coincidence and evidence that the world is actually very small, this chance meeting no longer surprises me as much. It actually seems to support Watt's idea that people of similar backgrounds who have never met are likely to run in the same circles and are therefore, likely to come into contact with each other or each other's friends. In this case, it was likely or at least possible that this young lady and I would have met at some point or another because the three of us were all involved in scouting, were studying/living abroad at the same time and came from similar backgrounds. Most importantly, however, the young lady and I also shared our mutual friend in common.

This does not mean that I think chance or pure dumb luck is irrelevant when it comes to small-world networks. It's entirely possible that the young lady and I never would have met if my girlfriend and I had opted to visit Pax Lodge at another time or simply passed her door/office when she was out to lunch or on a bathroom break. Thus, chance definitely plays some role - but as Watts argues and I believe, it can't be the only role.

This claim is supported when Watts references a talk he heard by sociologist Harrison White. The gist of the talk, as Watts explains, is that "people know each other because of the things they do, or more generally the contexts they inhibit... All the things we do, all the features that define us, and all the activities we pursue that lead us to meet and interact with each other are contexts. So, the contexts in which each of us participates is an extremely important determinant of the network structure that we subsequently create" (115).

The argument continues when Watts writes: "By belonging to certain groups and playing certain roles, individuals acquire characteristics that make them more or less likely to interact with one another. Social identity, in other words, drives the creation of social networks."

Returning to my personal anecdote, what Watts seems to be arguing is that our mutual involvement in scouting (whether boy or girl) made it that much more likely that the three of us would come into contact with each other. That the connection took place in London makes the story more intriguing, but it is not as relevant as the fact that Scouts tend to run in similar circles and pursue similar activities.

As Watts states on page 116: "The more contexts two people share, the closer they are, and the more likely they are to be connected."

Makes sense to me.


Jax D. said...

What is it about London that brings out everyone's long lost friends. The last time I was there I was at a very small hole in the wall restaraunt eating lunch when I heard two american accents sit down next to me. I had to find out what was going on. Turns out they were from a small town near where I was going to school at the time. Yes, we knew all the same people. I have long since taken these figures in my head as the truth. Even the other night in a bar I met some people who work with a current class mate and would have never met them in any other circumstance.

Interesting where we find people we are connected to.

kristalbrook said...

I love hearing stories like that! It may be just a work of science/math but to me it will always seem just a little magical when you discover how small the world is.