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Is It Really A “Small World”?

“It’s a small world” is something we say all the time, but is it really? In this post Nathan Palmer discusses how he lost his GoPro in a river, then against all odds got it back, and learned that it isn’t a small world, but it is a highly connected one.

My name is Nathan Palmer and I love making videos. Mostly videos of my wife and little daughter. She’s getting a lot bigger these days and so are our adventures. So I recently purchased a GoPro camera to keep up with her.

Our first big family adventure with the camera was tubing down the Chattahoochee river. I set off for a lazy day of floating with my wife and daughter. It was perfect. Well, that is until Lilly fell into the river. I dived for Lilly- catching her by the arm. After she was safe in her tube I went to sit back down in mine. My tube flipped up and hit my camera dead on, knocking it into the water. Lilly was safe and that’s all that matters, but my camera and all the memories it held were lost forever or so I thought.

My GoPro camera scratched the bottom of the river for about a week. Until it found a final resting place between some big rocks. And that’s the end of the story or at least thats where the story ends most of the time. But not this time.

The next weekend was the fourth of july. A twelve year old girl named Emily was visiting her grandparents and playing in the Chattahoochee river with her brother. She was catching fish bare handed, if you can believe it, when something in the water caught her eye. Emily plunged her hand into the water and pulled out my GoPro camera. And that’s where this story ends… most of the time, but not this time.

“Nate you’re on the internet!” my wife yelled Monday morning. She showed me her phone and there I was. Emily had given my camera to Julie Wolfe a reporter at 11Alive news in Atlanta to try and find me. Julie ran the story on the Sunday night news. People on social media shared the story over a million times all in hopes of helping Emily find me and in less than twelve hours… she did.

How did this happen? Let’s set aside the question of how do you raise a child with the moral character strong enough not to simply pull a “finders keepers” on my GoPro. That is astounding question in and of itself, but the sociologist in me wants to know how did the news story that ran in Atlanta (which is three and half hours away from where I live) reach me in less than twelve hours. It feels too easy to say, “it sure is a small world after all,” but this experience has left me wondering, “just how small is the world”? Luckily for us, I am not the first sociologist to ask this question.

In 1967 Stanley Milgram set out to test the “small world hypothesis” by recruiting people in Omaha, NE to send a letter to a stockbroker in Sharon, MA. But the catch was, they could only send it to someone they personally knew. They were instructed to send it to anyone they thought could get the letter closer to the stockbroker and likewise those recipients were instructed to do the same. Of the 296 letters sent, 64 made it to the stockbroker. Milgram counted the number of people in each of the successful letter chains and found that the average was approximately six.

Does that sound familiar? Ever heard of the “6 degrees of separation”? The term, which was coined by playwright John Guare, is an idea that posits that any one human on earth can be connected to another by just six people. But does Milgram’s study really give us enough evidence to make such a bold claim? We should keep in mind that only about 20% of the letters made it to the stockbroker.

Duncan Watts in his book Six Degrees recreated Milgram’s experiment using email and tens of thousands of participants[1]. What he found was that in massively large networks of any type an individual can be connected to another individual in just a few steps. The number of intermediating connections may be 6 or slightly higher or lower.

While it is tempting to say “it really is a small world after all”, we know that it’s not. It’s a very big world with over seven billion people in it. But the research suggests that our large world feels small to us because it is so highly connected.

But putting the science aside, I know one thing for sure. It may be a very big world, but now that I’m connected to Emily and her family, my world has certainly gotten a whole lot richer.

Dig Deeper:

  1. A lot has changed since 1967. In what ways are we more connected today than we were then? What technologies make connection more prevalent today?
  2. How does living in a connected society change people’s behavior? While we don’t have any scientific research in front of us to answer this question, brainstorm three possible ways living in a connected world affects us.
  3. Have you ever had an experience that made you say, “it sure is a small world”? If so, describe that experience and then try and incorporate Milgram and Watt’s studies into your discussion.
  4. Do a google search for “6 degrees of Kevin Bacon”. How does this game relate to Milgram and Watt’s work?

  1. Watts originally published this research with Steven Strogatz in the journal Nature.  ↩