Monday, October 03, 2005


Who uses it: Sociologists
What it means: Individuals who know people in many different, apparently unrelated fields, and make introductions across those lines. Stanley Milgram, in his "small world" experiment -- the one that first seemed to prove the theory of six degrees of separation -- called these people "stars." "Connectors," which has become the more popular term, is what Malcolm Gladwell calls them in his book The Tipping Point.
How to use it: To describe anyone you know who seems to know everyone.

Thanks to my cousin Moira for introducing me to this concept, and making me feel good about being a connector myself. (Unkind people, including my own Inner Critic, might prefer the word "dilettante," or -- on especially bad days -- "flake.")

"Six degrees of separation" is more than a theory; it's been proven, and applies to much more than human relationships. Scientists have used the principle to research everything from disease transmission to cellular reproduction.

It's fun to play with random people you meet, if they're willing. In my circles, it would be rare to get to six degrees; I'm pretty sure you can link every college-educated American between the ages of 25 and 40 in four steps, at most.

And much of what we consider coincidence isn't coincidence at all, if we look at it properly. A couple of years ago, I walked into a writing workshop at UCLA that had only 11 students. Two of us had attended the same small prep school, though a decade apart. Two of us had recently moved to Los Angeles from Washington, D.C., and it turned out that both I and a couple I didn't even know thought that one of my classmates might be a good match for the same guy. (That never materialized, but all parties have since paired off happily, so never mind.)

None of this was coincidence. It's only natural that people of similar backgrounds and interests gravitate to the same places, and that paths cross more than once over the course of an 80-year life. Whether these connections last, or slip away, seems to be a question of timing.

Happy birthday and a speedy recovery to my Uncle John... connections are easy when you start with a family as large as ours.

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