Are You Connected?
Six degrees of separation
by Brian Radcliffe
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To encourage us to consider our level of connection with people.
Preparation and materials
- For the Assembly, ‘Step 1’, you will need to devise a link between yourself and a celebrity by using six degrees of separation.
- I am well connected. I can trace a link between myself and (insert celebrity name). It goes like this.
Detail your link with your chosen celebrity, using the best connections that you can devise.
Pause to allow time for thought.
- Are you impressed? I hope so.
What I’ve just described is known as six degrees of separation. The concept was first devised by a Hungarian author, Frigyes Karinthy, in his short story Chains, which was published in 1929. You may have heard of an offshoot of this concept called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, which is a game where players try to link an actor of their choice with the prolific actor Kevin Bacon in six steps or less.
The idea behind six degrees of separation is that everyone is six or fewer social connections away from each other. We can establish links through family relationships, friends and people we’ve met. Let’s try making a new one.
Either choose a student, name a celebrity and try as a group to devise links between the two, or split the students into pairs and give them five minutes to come up with their own versions, which can be shared with the whole group.
- Although the concept is known as six degrees of separation, that feels like the wrong emphasis. Instead, I think it would be better described as six degrees of connectivity.
Separation implies that we are a long way from each other, whereas what the six degrees concept achieves is the complete opposite. We can show that no one is far away from anyone else; we can even link the most famous celebrity to ordinary people like ourselves. That has implications for each one of us.
- The first implication is that we are affected by other people, not just those we are close to but those who are further away. Someone directly affects someone else, who directly affects someone else, who directly affects someone else, who directly affects someone else, and eventually, someone directly affects us. We may not register the effect that the distant person has on us - in fact, it may be tiny - but it is real nevertheless.
This idea links to what is known as the small-world phenomenon. For example, a French woman may give birth to a boy who plays in a school team with a footballer who becomes famous and marries a girl from Sweden who appears in a concert where your mum and dad meet. Eventually, you are conceived and now you make my life a misery here in school! I’m linked in a small way to that French woman and have been affected by her life choices. (You may prefer to make up your own unlikely example.)
- The second implication of our high level of connectivity is, I believe, more important. It concerns the fact that we also have an effect on other people. What we do radiates from us to someone else, who in turn affects someone else and so on. The effect that we have on the last person in the chain may be planned, but is more likely to be unplanned. In addition, the effect that we have may be positive or negative. We might enhance that person’s life, and the lives of others in the chain, or we might damage it.
Time for reflection
Some people say that the world in which we live is getting smaller. That’s because the internet and TV can bring us almost instantaneous connections with places on the other side of the world. We might watch sport from Japan and India, concerts from North America or news reports from anywhere. We know the names of individuals who are suffering, who have big decisions to make, who are celebrating success or who want to publicize a message. So, how do we respond when we realize that there may be only six degrees of separation (or connectivity) between us and them?
Christians believe in connectivity. Saint Paul talks of Jesus saying, ‘In him all things hold together’ (Colossians 1.17). The implication here is that Jesus provides the positive links that make the world work efficiently, positively, lovingly and forgivingly. It may seem a long way from here to sub-Saharan Africa, to Ukraine, to Syria and to Afghanistan, but it’s a small world really. Maybe we can do our bit to help it hold together.
‘It’s a small world’ from the film of the same name, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PxRW-duSCLA (3.02 minutes long)
‘One love’ by Bob Marley, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdB-8eLEW8g (2.45 minutes long)
- Research a story about hardship, poverty, war or some other kind of suffering that is happening somewhere far from your home. Identify an individual within that news story, and then build a link to that person by using the most realistic connections that you can imagine.
Choose a way to make that link personal and practical, for example, through a charitable organization. Relish knowing that you’ve been able to affect someone’s life in a positive way.