It’s a Small World After All…

“What is the probability that any two people, selected arbitrarily from a large population, such as that of the United States, will know each other?”

This is the question that Travers and Milgram (1969) sought to investigate, and in essence defines the small world theory. The Small World Theory basically is the idea that our unexpected social links connect us to far more individuals than we realize, regardless of location. Kadushin (2011) demonstrates this idea in the first chapter of Understanding Social Networks by discussing how social media sites such as Facebook connect us to networks that make the world seem small. For example, through my 500 friends on Facebook, I am connected to various other individuals by either one or two degrees of separation. In other words, I am connected to my friends, their friends, and further their friends. The expansive nature of this system can be visualized in the image below.

However, these connections don’t solely exist online. This week’s lectures also demonstrated the small world theory, as it exists practically in our policy arena. The lecture mentioned Obama’s decision to change telephone surveillance of terrorists from 3 degrees to only 2 degrees of separation, demonstrating how wide our social networks go and the actual number of individuals who are still under surveillance given the change.

However, this example also highlights one of the very real risks of the small world theory. Kadushin (2011) warns that these weak ties have the danger of exposing us to more people than we desire to be exposed to. This seems to occur for a few reasons:

  1. Kadushin (2011) explains that weak ties are what connect networks that otherwise would be disconnected, connecting us outside of our insular networks.
  2. Granovetter (1973) claims that “the stronger the tie connecting two individuals, the more similar they are” (p.1362), which seems to suggest that weak ties connect us to those whom we are dissimilar from.

For these reasons, weak ties, such as those emphasized in the small world theory connect us to those who we are different from, and otherwise would likely not be connected to. This provides the opportunity for us to 1) be connected to more people than we desire and 2) be connected to individuals we may wish we weren’t connected to.

So, what is the impact of weak ties on the big world?

As previously mentioned, weak ties connect us people we otherwise would not be connected to. Further, Granovetter (1973) explains how weak ties allow us to explore connections between social networks, stating:

“Emphasis on weak ties lends itself to discussion of relations between groups and to analysis of segments of social structure not easily defined in terms of primary groups” (p. 1360).

Thus, the presence of weak ties allows us to consider the social networks of the world as cohesive as opposed to disjointed systems. We therefore can investigate the connection between various networks instead of solely focusing our research within insular networks. Due to this, we can begin to collect data and ask questions about how networks are connected, how we maintain such connections, and the importance of these bridges.

From this perspective, weak ties seem to be just as important as strong ties. In my opinion, they may even rival strong ties. Given that they are the source of newer ideas being introduced into social groups from dissimilar groups, they serve an important role of ensuring that our social networks do not become too isolated. This perhaps is most evident when considering the impact that weak ties likely played in the last presidential election.

So, who is Kevin Bacon, and why is he important in this discussion?

Kevin Bacon, the actor in the photo above, became the face of the small world theory when a few college students designed a game called “The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” The goal of this game is to connect any actor to Kevin Bacon through no more than 6 other actors, thus demonstrating that even the world of Hollywood is subject to the small world theory.

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