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The Dream Machine --- The Imagination of the World Wide Web
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Many years ago, before the Internet was a fact of life, a social psychologist at Harvard, Stanley Milgram, carried out a landmark experiment in networking. What he did was send out a large number of letters to random addresses around the country. The recipient was asked if he or she knew a particular person at a particular address on the East Coast, we believe it was in Maryland. If that person did not, he or she was asked to pass the letter on to the person he or she thought was most likely to know that person...and so on and so forth. Each additional recipient was asked to add his or her address to the growing list of people in the chain. Eventually, it was hoped that a large number of these letters would arrive at the chosen destination. It was a type of chain letter which was meant to estimate how many "circles of acquaintance" lay between any two persons chosen at random.
The results were inconclusive, but they indicated to Milgram that the actual number was somewhat less than sixteen. Additional studies narrowed that estimate down to about six, a rather startling conclusion if you think about it, for it placed most of us much closer to people of power and influence than we would have imagined.
Indeed, the same concept was used to create a parlor game many years later. You may have heard of it. It's called "Six Degrees from Kevin Bacon." The point of the game is to name a movie actor, say Merle Streep. Then the other participants try to name a movie in which Ms. Streep performed with another actor, maybe Bacon himself, in which case the game is resolved in one step...one degree. If not, then the second actor, say Jack Nicholson, is added to the mix...he having been in at least one movie with Streep. The chain goes on until the people playing have either reached a movie in which Kevin and the current actor were in together, or everybody gives up. It is conjectured that it is always possible to determine a chain from any actor to Kevin Bacon in six or fewer steps. Our son Roger, once the Teen Movie Critic, is a master of this game. We have been totally unable to stump him with ANY actor, even obscure movie actors from the distant past. For example, for Buster Keaton, a silent movie star, we have:
We think that the Internet is an ideal place to test this concept when applied to any randomly chosen person and any other, as Milgram once did. As we see it, a good first step is to link each of the two people to a known celebrity. Then, the total chain from one to the other consists of some number less than or equal to the sum of the numbers in the two chains between each person and the celebrity. The "less than" part of the conclusion means that it may happen that there are people in the chain in common to the two starting people other than the celebrity. Using a celebrity merely adds focus, since knowing which direction to proceed is exceedingly difficult if the starting points are two "unknown" individuals.
We will report the results of this experiment...in our column...whenever we have something interesting to tell you about it.
Talk to you later...
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