So what does a Hungarian author, a Jewish-American social psychologist,  and an American playwright have in common with Facebook? Today I read a New York Times article that shed some light on the 6 degrees of separation concept – the idea that everyone on the planet is connected by no more than 6 acquaintances.

Frigyes Karinthy is the Hungarian author who wrote “Chains,” a 1929 short story in which two characters discuss a game based on this notion. Approximately 40 years later, social psychologist Stanley Milgram (see The Small World Problem) decided to test this theory by asking 296 volunteers to send a postcard to a select individual in Boston. If participants did not know the person, they were instructed to pass the postcard along to an acquaintance who was more likely to know the target person.  The average number of connections? – 6 (technically 5.2).

American dramatist John Guare wrote the play Six Degrees of Separation, which was eventually adapted for the silver screen, cementing the phrase into pop culture. In fact, I never knew the 6 degrees of separation concept was an actual study because I only thought of the movie whenever I heard the phrase.

In an effort to re-examine this phenomenon, Facebook teamed up with the University of Milan. Using an advanced mathematical algorithm, they determined that “92% [of Facebook users around the world] are connected by only four degrees (5 hops)” – 4.74 to be exact.  The study can be viewed here.

When the researchers looked at a single country, connections were only separated by 3 degrees (4 hops). Karinthy’s foresight is eerily precise – the world really is shrinking. We can now overcome physical distance in virtual space, connecting to anyone from anywhere – as long as you’ve got a digital device and an internet connection.