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The Rise of Change Mavens! Why 3 Degrees (not Kevin Bacon) is the New 6 Degrees of Social Impact.

Origin of “The 6-Degrees Formula”

Most people are familiar with the basic concept that all people may be within six degrees of separation, such as friends of friends, peers, or relatives. In theory, we could therefore connect any two people in as little as six steps (also known as the “six-handshakes rule.”

Before high-speed communication was a thing however, the pony express or post office were the best tools for friends (or thought leaders for that matter), to shake hands and exchange messages from a distance. Then along came the Communication Age with radio, television, fax, Internet, e-mail, text, and smart phones — enabling each generation to share ideas and introductions faster and faster. Equally important, anyone could champion causes for political, social, or economic change with greater speed. FANTASTIC! But it also meant propaganda and misinformation were out there in gross volumes too. This left change mavens with a social dilemma — how do we get closer to sourcing and distributing truth for good, with better control of our own narrative so it’s not lost in the weeds? To that end, we might turn to a few social experiments and party games that shed light over the last 50 years.

On Nov 22, 2011, a team of scientists at Facebook and the University of Milan released a study based on 721 million Facebook users (today Facebook has 3 billion users). Back then, the study suggested 69 billion friendships could be formed by any two individuals connecting through just 4.74 acquaintances. The study also revealed that mutual connections at the initial touch were often of similar age and came from the same country.  The algorithms used in the study even postulated that degrees of separation were shrinking over time as the networks got bigger ( just three degrees of separation in many cases). I’m no math maven but it sounded like fuzzy math, so I thought I’d take a deeper dive on why these studies might be a formula for good, not merely a back door for bad behavior such as manipulative advertising, invasion of privacy, and misappropriation of user data as the world becomes more connected. Turns out, Facebook wasn’t the first such experiment on degrees of social connectivity…

…In 1929, a short story titled Chains was written by a popular Hungarian poet, journalist, and playwright named Frigyes Karinthy (1887-1938). In the story, a group of people play a game trying to connect anyone in the world by a chain of 5 others. Sound familiar? An accomplished author and translator, Karinthy’s written works explored everything from fictional adventures, artificial intelligence, dark satire, and even our battle of the sexes. Based on my research, Karinthy truly deserves original credit for the 6-Degrees of Separation storyline.

The Plot Thickens…

In 1967, a psychologist named Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment with hundreds of people in Omaha, Nebraska. It was seminal work that preceded social media and the Facebook / Milan study by nearly half a century; but 38 years after Karinthy wrote Chains. As part of his Harvard dissertation, Milgram asked participants to forward a package to a friend who they believed could bring it closer to a stockbroker in Boston who was the subject of Milgram’s experiment. Each participant received instructions to mail a folder to a friend they knew on a first-name basis. Each friend then passed along the same instructions, hoping an acquaintance might know Milgram’s stockbroker in Boston. Milgram tracked progress through return postcards in each letter. There was an average of “six degrees of separation” between the original sender and the recipient in Boston who received the package. And so begins a more scientific formula for “6 Degrees” being the number of people required to find a desired connection.

The Gamification of Actor Kevin Bacon …

Fast-forward 23 years from Milgram’s experiment to 1990, when an American playwright named John Guare wrote a Pulitzer-Prize nominated play titled Six Degrees of Separation. The story was later adapted as a feature film in 1993, inspired by a real-life con artist named David Hampton, theorizing that any two of us on earth are connected at most by just five other people — or a total chain of just six acquaintances. Keep in mind that these stories all pre-date  Google, text, email, and smart phones. For that matter, personal computers were only a decade into our zeitgeist.

A year later in an unrelated story, actor Kevin Bacon joked in an interview that he seemingly worked with everybody in Hollywood at some point in his career (or someone who worked with someone). The social buzz of Bacon’s quip exploded shortly after when three Albright College students (Craig Fass, Brian Turtle, Mike Ginelli) invented a party game called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. After watching two movies (Footloose and Up In The Air), the students began speculating on the number of films Bacon had appeared in and how everyone might be connected to him one way or another, especially when you connect popular players in the entertainment Matrix (actors, artists, writers, directors, producers). The students then wrote a letter to a popular talk-show host Jon Stewart, telling him Kevin Bacon was the center of the entertainment universe in their “silly party game.” The students soon found themselves on The Jon Stewart Show explaining their “Six-Degrees of Separation” premise. A book and trivia game were soon released and “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” became a cultural juggernaut game, much like Trivial Pursuit.

Is 3 Degrees The New 6 Degrees?

Not to be upstaged by a game baring his own name, Kevin Bacon formed a non-profit in 2007 called SixDegrees.org. His organization teamed up with a popular charity hub called Network for Good to power a website that linked its users to over a million charities. Over the next decade, the 6-degrees theory was not only put to the test as a social-media tool for charities, advertisers, research, business, and influencers, so too was the 4.74-degree theory postulated in the far-less-famous Milan-Facebook study. Was the true number actually shrinking?

The ALS Ice-Bucket-Challenge • A Game-Changer 

In 2014, the ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge inspired millions of people to champion awareness to a debilitating disease known as ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / aka: Lou Gehrig’s Disease). The Bucket Challenge encouraged charitable souls to make a short video of themselves dumping cold water on their heads, post it on social media, then challenge three friends to spread awareness by doing the same. The results raised over $30 million dollars and global consciousness in just a few months! This was a major game-changer for ALS charities since they had only raised a few million dollars a year earlier for the same period. Some folks even had a bad case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) if they weren’t included when a friend challenged three others to join the movement! The result? Many people just started their own bucket challenge and asked 3 friends to do the same. This begged a simple question: “Did 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon just get replaced by 3 Degrees of Change Mavens on social media?”

“What’s a Change Maven?” 

In a social-media world powered by influencers at every turn, anyone can launch a mission to make a difference whether they start a movement or support one. It starts with a passionate person who has a desire to make a difference and an idea that supports change.

PICK YOUR PASSION > The Arts. Climate. Human Rights. Education. Health Care. Kids at Risk.

Examples:

  • Kid Mavens can launch a lemonade stand for a local cause.
  • Education Mavens can teach students & employees online.
  • Creative Artists can collaborate to inspire like-minded ideas.
  • Peaceful-Protest Mavens can influence laws and political winds.
  • Business Mavens can donate international resources to improve lives.
  • Philanthropic Mavens can help small entrepreneurs with micro-loans & mentorship.

Legitimate Altruism — not Lip Service

In today’s fast-paced world, there is a risk when criminals, corrupt individuals, misleading advertisers, and unethical media sources exploit social media to hijack the intentions of good people. Plenty of folks claim to “do good”, but it’s incumbent upon all of us to do our homework and support those who actually walk the good talk. Moreover, giving back is not mutually exclusive to gig missions and money campaigns. To the contrary, a giving campaign can start local, share resources, build brand awareness, improve customer loyalty, and develop strong partnerships, no matter what your mission — big or small.

In short, Change Mavens are the new Kevin Bacons and Party Players whenever and wherever good ideas & good people join forces. Best of all, none of us needs to be a Money Mogul or Hollywood celeb to make a difference. We simply need a common PASSION behind a common PURPOSE.

You may not know Kevin Bacon, but Change Mavens with big hearts might be just 3 DEGREES of YOU!

Cliff Michaels