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The Rules of the Game No. 19: A friend of a friend

Frank Kogan

The Rules of the Game No. 19: A friend of a friend

In 1967, social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a famous experiment to illustrate the “small-world” effect: He gave random people in Boston and Nebraska a letter and asked them to get it to a stockbroker in Sharon, Massachusetts, whom most had never heard of, while instructing them not to send it directly unless they knew the guy, but rather through intermediaries they knew on a first-name basis. These in turn could send it to someone they knew on a first-name basis, etc. People guessed that the letter would take hundreds of steps to reach the stockbroker, but the surprising result was, on average, about six steps, leading to the common belief that every person on the planet was connected to every other person by not much more than six degrees of separation (to use John Guare’s phrase).

In fact, the results were far more equivocal: Only about 20 percent of the letters actually arrived; and, on the one hand, since Nebraska to Massachusetts hardly spans the entire world, the results could well have underestimated the number of connections it would take to get to someone particularly distant; but, on the other hand, there’s no reason to assume that any of the senders knew their most direct route to the recipient (how could they?), so the test could just as easily have overestimated the number.

I don’t see a way to ever calculate a definitive number of steps. But whether it’s five or six or 10, it’s remarkably small, given the actual social distance between me and, say, an impoverished animal herder in upper Burma. I’m not mentioning Burma at random. My favorite album of 2005 was Guitars of the Golden Triangle, a compilation of tracks recorded in the 1970s in Shan State in remote northeast Burma. Yet the songs are achingly beautiful meldings of psychedelic garage rock, Asian, and country & western sounds. The leadoff track was a cover of Hoyt Axton’s “Lightning Bar Blues,” a song I’d never heard in any version until this one (which I guess ruins my cred with Brownsville Station and Hanoi Rocks fans). Talk about unexpected connections.

Interestingly, in bobbing around the Internet today, I couldn’t find any information about what Milgram’s letter actually said. I mean, what was in the message and why would anyone want to send it, and why would the stockbroker want to read it? Once you’ve made a connection to this stranger, what do you want him to know? And what sort of response do you want back?

And yes, such questions miss the point of the experiment—but not its import. The point was just to test the small-world hypothesis. But the import is that anything that can travel—ideas, rumors, germs, and scams—can dramatically extend its range via small-world networks.

A lot of the excitement in reading Duncan J. Watts’ Six Degrees, which I’ve been drawing on for the last several columns, is that principles of small-world networks seem to apply not only to social networks but to power grids, neural connections in tiny worms and so on. What these disparate things have in common is a great amount of order but also a small amount of countervailing disorder. What creates the order is that if two nodes are connected to a third, they’re “more likely to be connected to each other than to nodes picked at random.” In human terms this means that we meet people through other people we already know, which means we’re likely to end up knowing many of the same people; so we cluster—by class, by race, by interests, by profession, by job, by family. And in these clusterings we develop similar interests, similar beliefs, similar tastes in music, etc. Watts says that, even when we’re being individualists and nonconformists, “we typically have in mind some minority group of actors whom we do wish to emulate.”

So this seems to be a paradox: we cluster, knowing the people whom our friends and colleagues know, who tend to know the same people we do. Yet we’re only a couple of hops, skips, and jumps away from anyone in the world. This is because almost no one conforms totally to type. E.g., individuals develop idiosyncratic interests, take unexpected jobs, have casual friendships with people with whom they seem to have little in common. The casual friendships may be most significant in connecting us to someone beyond our groups. Furthermore, if you look at the clusters I listed above—class, race, interests, profession, and so forth—they can pull in divergent directions.

In short, it’s the disorder in a social network that makes the world small. A couple of weeks ago I wrote, “But the more [bohemia] becomes a subculture itself, it loses its gut feeling for what it’s like not to be part of that subculture.” Although this is too often true, no bohemian resides exclusively in his own bohemia. Family, drug connections, temp jobs can all lead him afield. In general, it’s the multiplicity of people’s social groupings that provide pathways to the rest of the world. If I want to reach my impoverished Burmese animal herder—say, one who is entirely indifferent to Burmese psychedelic garage rock of the ’70s—I simply find a fellow rock critic who knows the guys at Sublime Frequencies, the West Coast record company that put out the Burmese compilation. And they, at least when the military rulers lift the Internet blackout, get in touch with their contacts in Shan State, who find someone who has contacts of any kind (familial, political, economic) with farmers and herders. We find a pathway by jumping types of contexts: my rock-critic profession and bohemian musical interests get us to remote Burma in several steps, where the pathway jumps to, say, truckers and traders, and then to farmers.

But for me, the small-world problem isn’t how to connect with someone in particular whose name and profession I already know—say, Saing Someone, a herder in Shan State. Rather, I start with the content of my message, and wish to find the person who wants to read it, if such a person exists. Or I myself want to be a recipient of some unexpected message I probably didn’t realize I needed to hear. And this curiosity isn’t owing to some abstract belief in openness and diversity. Rather, it’s because I’m at an impasse. I’ve been posing lots of questions in these columns, but I myself only have tentative answers. My column is a vehicle for these questions, but in effect it’s a kind of personals ad, too—except that instead of searching for a girlfriend I’m looking for colleagues.

To give just a couple of examples: The question of class and social allegiance pretty much bonks you on the head within 10 minutes of your visiting any music message board or record review section. But finding more than a dozen musicians or music critics who can go beyond obvious posturing when discussing class is basically impossible. The talent pool is just not there. In any event, in August I wrote a couple of columns about my concept of “class,” the fact that I don’t really have a workable concept, but that I’m certain that the standard terminology—“middle class” and “working class”—doesn’t do the job and that I need to develop alternatives. My intuition tells me I’m on the right track in considering “preps” and “emos” and “people who read the music sections of alternative weeklies” to be classes themselves, related to but not reducible to “middle class” and “working class,” etc. My insight is that categories such as “preps” etc.—identities to aspire to and evade—are where people live emotionally.

But I’m stymied in my analysis, relying on vocabularies drawn from high school, no matter how inapplicable they are elsewhere, since adult social environments rarely provide as potent a nomenclature or as clear a social landscape. I’m wondering where else to turn for my vocabulary and analogies, and I’m calling to the world for people genuinely interested in such a discussion, even if they lack my love for Ashlee Simpson and interest in Britney Spears. Maybe you know someone who knows someone who views social patterns from a better vantage. Probably not a rock critic. Possibly a Burmese farmer.

Speaking of Britney, she hasn’t stopped wavering between sharpness and oblivion. She’s calling her new album Blackout, which is a genius title; but in her new vid she’s the walking dead, just as bad as on the VMAs, only she’s got a stripper’s pole to hang onto this time.

For all the words thrown into the air about this woman, there seems not to be more than a handful of us noticing this woman’s brain, as it tries to fight back, and the significance of the negative imagery she’s choosing and in her partying like a rock star—whatever that significance is. (In contrast to all this, there’ve been Britney demos floating around the web that are neither intense nor dissolute, but are pretty, and quietly insistent. I’ve no idea if any of them are destined for the LP.)

My point is, again, that I’m certain I don’t understand what’s going on with Britney—I don’t just mean what’s going on with her personally, but what’s going on with the culture as it tries to figure out what attitude to take towards her. There is a barrage of postures and opinions on the subject of Britney Spears, and I contribute my small amount to that barrage, but what I’m missing is a critical community that's more than rudimentary, one where we help each other work out what all this might mean. Maybe the community is there, but I haven’t yet found my path to it.

Keep the conversation going at Read previous Rules of the Game columns at

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