In 2003 Watts published the results of an e-mail version he did of Milgram’s experiment. He set up a Web page and recruited 18 targets in 13 countries. In the end, 61,168 starters signed on, and 24,163 chains were begun. Of those, only 384 were completed. Those who finished their chains did so within slightly more than four links, on average. Watts, unlike Milgram, included a survey with his study, and one of the questions asked people who hadn’t finished to give the reason why. Less than one-half of 1 percent of respondents said they had failed to pass the e-mail on because they didn’t know who to send it to. Watts believes the majority failed because of other problems, such as e-mail spam blocks that diverted their requests. Other times, he suspects, chains failed because the people who received an e-mail weren’t as interested in continuing the chain as the people who’d started it.
“People so much want to believe that we live in a global village, all holding hands,” Kleinfeld says.
Lack of interest, Watts says, points to the underlying complexity of networking. The question is not just whether we are closely connected, but how we navigate those connections—and whether we choose to do so at all. “People can find these paths as long as they’re motivated to do so and able to motivate people to help them,” he says. “But no matter how motivated you are, you have to be able to motivate the other person, who can put you in touch with the next person, and the next person has to do it too.”
According to Watts, sometimes those in the best position to help you aren’t inclined to do so. This would undoubtedly be a problem if the CIA, say, tried to connect with Osama bin Laden. “If you’re trying to reach bin Laden, the last couple of people in the chain are not going to be particularly cooperative, even if they could be,” says Watts.
There’s also the issue of belief. Some people just don’t believe we can be linked by so few people, so they don’t try to connect. But the perception of connectivity is crucial in completing the chains. Take the example of Petey Pierre, a student and boxer who worked out at the Bedford-Stuyvesant Boxing Center in Brooklyn, New York.
In 2006 Pierre agreed to participate in a small world experiment with Watts and ABC News that addressed two of the criticisms of small world research: that no studies had ever been played out in real time, and that the people who had participated in the chains tended be educated, white, and middle or upper class. Critics say it’s easy to show how predominantly middle-class professional people can connect to one another in different countries. But add race and socioeconomic status and it’s a different ball game.
So ABC recruited Petey Pierre and Kristina Stewart Ward, then an editor for Hampton Style magazine who split her time between the Upper East Side of Manhattan and the Hamptons on Long Island, where she hobnobbed with celebrities. Ward’s assignment: Get to Pierre.
Ward was sure she could connect with him in just a couple of steps. She first called her friend James, who worked at Asprey, a store known for its luxury jewelry. She remembered having a conversation with him once in which he mentioned a fellow employee who boxed. James promptly put her in touch with that person, a woman named Michelle. Michelle put Ward in touch with her trainer, Michael Olajide, a former middleweight contender, who owned a gym in Manhattan’s fashionable Meatpacking District. He directed Ward to Bruce Silverglade, owner of Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. As it turned out, Silverglade not only knew of Pierre’s Bedford-Stuyvesant gym, he knew Nate Boyd, Pierre’s trainer. It was Boyd who made the final connection. When Ward arrived at the gym, both Pierre and Watts were there. “It was amazing,” Watts recalls. “Pierre was blown away.”
Unlike the people who participated in Milgram’s and Watts’s experiments, Ward and Pierre were motivated by a camera crew and a mention on ABC News. Most people don’t have that. Nevertheless, for Watts the TV experiment provided another bit of evidence that the idea of six degrees of separation has a lot of truth behind it. Kleinfeld is more skeptical. “I still find one of the most interesting questions to be why people so much want to believe that we live in a global village, all holding hands.”