Kevin Bacon isn’t the center of the universe. Not even the Hollywood universe. Sorry if it seems that way. His prominence, and the game “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” is a historical fluke—the result of a scientific phenomenon and three possibly inebriated fraternity brothers.
As I found when researching my new book, the three men, Craig Fass, Brian Turtle, and Mike Ginelli, were watching movies together and started to wonder why Kevin Bacon appeared to be in so many different movies they were watching that very day. They began to speculate that perhaps Bacon was the center of the Hollywood universe.
To test their theory, they began to play a game. Being movie buffs, they started to name random actors and actresses and see how many steps it took to connect those people back to Kevin Bacon through movies. For example, Elvis Presley is connected to Kevin Bacon by just one intermediary. Presley was in King Creole with Walter Matthau, who was in JFK with Kevin Bacon. So the trio gave Presley a “Bacon number” of 2. Even actors from long ago can connect to Bacon with relative ease. Marilyn Monroe has a Bacon number of just 2. (Monroe acted in The Misfits with Kevin McCarthy, who acted in Hero at Large with Kevin Bacon.)
Convinced they had stumbled upon a discovery of earth-shattering proportions, they started spreading the word, including an appearance on The Jon Stewart Show to demonstrate their expertise by connecting Kevin Bacon to actors named at random. They also got the chance to meet Bacon himself on the show and earn their own Bacon number of sorts. Their appearance on the show made an impact and the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” spread rapidly. For their efforts, the frat brothers even landed a book deal.
More interestingly, the television show was watched by two computer science students at the University of Virginia who took the game to another level. Glen Watson and Brett Tjaden happened to be watching that fateful episode and decided that determining the number of connections between two actors might be a viable project for their studies.
After only a few weeks of programming and refining, they launched The Oracle of Bacon, a website where anyone can enter the names of any two movie stars and in seconds the program will find the shortest distance between them. (While the website will enter “Kevin Bacon” as a default, you can delete his name and replace it to find the connection between two non-Bacon stars.) At its high point, the website was receiving 20,000 visits per day and was also inspiring copycat games. “Six Degrees of Marlon Brando” became a fad in Germany. And in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the New York Times even printed a diagram called “Six Degrees of Monica” connecting her to famous (and infamous) people like Bill Clinton (obviously), O. J. Simpson, and even Kevin Bacon.
Without the three college students, there would have been no website, but without the website, we wouldn’t have had the data to discover one of the most intriguing principles in network science (and we also wouldn’t have learned that there’s actually nothing special about Bacon…at least not in terms of connections).
The phenomenon is known as the “small-world effect,” for the exclamation many make when finding out that a total stranger they just met has a few friends in common (“it’s a small world”). It was first discovered by then Cornell University professor Steven Strogatz and doctoral student Duncan Watts. To demonstrate, they drew a perfectly ordered network—a series of dots along a circle where each dot was connected only to its closest neighbors. Sending a message or introducing two dots to each other would take a long time if conducted by going through each dot to arrive at the intended receiver. But when Watts and Strogatz started adding a few links across the circle randomly, something astounding happened. The communication chain shrunk exponentially even after just a few new connections were made. Using computer simulations, they started repeating the process for hundreds of new models. Each time they would start with an orderly network of a specific size and uniform connections, then add a few random connections that spanned the network and watch as the communication chain shrunk dramatically. And each time it only took a few links to make a large and tightly clustered world suddenly very small.
To understand how the small-world effect works, imagine you are sitting in a circle of twenty-four people and each person can speak only to the person on either side of them. Getting a message to a person across the circle from you would require going through twelve people. But now imagine that four people in the circle—not everyone, just those four—are also able to send a message across the circle. No matter where you are sitting in the circle, the number of people needed to send a message suddenly drops by around half. Those four people’s ability to provide a shortcut is all it takes. Now imagine a circle of 7 billion people, with millions of them providing shortcuts for others.
They decided to test their hypothesis using one of the most famous small-world examples of all: Kevin Bacon. Watts and Strogatz borrowed Tjaden’s data and re-created a network of films, using co-starring roles as connection points. Out of roughly 225,000 actors and actresses, the path between any two individuals turned out to be shockingly less than four steps. Just as in their mathematical models, Hollywood is a tightly clustered network that includes individuals who span vast distances and provide shortcuts for everyone else.
Interestingly, however, Kevin Bacon is not one of them.
While his path to everyone else is a little shorter—less than three steps—it is by no means the shortest. He ranked 669th on the list of best-connected actors—not exactly the center of the universe. While that is bad news for Bacon, it’s good news for us. It suggests that perhaps all of us are indeed more connected than we think. Ordinary individuals,” Watts later wrote, “are just as capable of spanning critical divides between social and professional circles, between different nations, or between different neighborhoods, as exceptional people.”
While most of the focus of networking advice has been focused on growing your network to be as vast and interconnected as Kevin Bacon, the truth is you don’t need to be that popular to get connected to everyone you need.
In fact, the real lesson of six degrees of Kevin Bacon is that we ought to have a different mentality entirely: We don’t grow or create a network—we already exist inside of one. Our network is not a Rolodex of names separate from us, to be used by us. Rather, we are an integrated part of the bigger whole. The entire collection of humans, 7 billion strong and counting, is basically one interconnected network. Everyone is a friend of a friend (even if we haven’t met that friend yet). Every new person we meet opens up our ability to navigate that network, and any given person can open us up to an entirely new world.
So by all means, go out and meet new people, make new friends and business contacts. But don’t let the lack of contacts stand in the way of finding a path to the people you need to meet. You can be the 669th most connected person in your industry. But if you’ve got even a few friends, then you’ve got everything you need for a thriving career.