The “Kevin Bacon” Game

Kevin Bacon is a relatively well known and popular American actor. The idea behind the Kevin Bacon game — which is a popular pop culture trivia game – is to link any actor or actress through the movies they’ve been in, to Kevin Bacon.

Example: Mary Pickford was in “Screen Snapshots” with Clark Gable, who was in “Combat America” with Tony Romano who, 35 years later, was in “Starting Over” with Kevin Bacon. Three Steps.

In the 1990’s, computer scientist Brett Tjaden (University of Virginia) using the Internet Movie Database determined that Kevin Bacon was on average 2.8312 steps from any actor or actress (which placed him 668th of all actors and actress). Then using the database, he determined the overall connectivity of every actor and actress in the database. Among the top 50 were names such as Martin Sheen, Robert Mitchum, Gene Hackman, Donald Sutherland, Rod Steiger, and Shelly Winters.

In the magazine Nature, Duncan Watts and Steven Strogatz further reviewed this analysis and attempted to determine why an actor such as Burgess Meredith, appearing in 114 films, ranked in the top 20 when Gary Cooper with a similar number of films ranked even behind Kevin Bacon at 878th and John Wayne with 183 films only ranked 160th.

What they concluded was that while Gary Cooper and John Wayne appeared in a significantly greater number of movies, the movies they did appear in where similar movie types. In fact, over 50% of John Wayne’s movies were westerns.

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Burgess Meredith, on the other hand (who only appeared in approximately 60% of the movies as Gary Cooper and John Wayne) appeared in a wide variety of movies types: 42 dramas (including Of Mice and Men (1939) and Rocky (1976)); 22 comedies; 8 adventures; 7 action; 5 documentaries; science fiction, horror and a western; 4 thrillers; 4 crime movies; 2 children; 2 romance; 2 mysteries; 1 musical; and 1 animated film.

Here is the “take away” from the Kevin Bacon game and the analysis of the relativity connectivity of actors and actresses. First, take a look at your network. If it is unproductive or stagnant, look at whom you are involved with.

Does your network look like Burgess Meredith’s career? Great! Does your network resemble the career of John Wayne? If so, work to diversify your network.

If everything you do revolves around work, family, or one group of people, your network will have limited potential. To explore the real potential of your network, however, you need to live in lots of worlds. Get involved at work. Get involved at church, PTA, youth sports. Belong to a trade association outside your profession.

Network Pyramid Capstones

There are many of these experiments and studies that offer wonderful insight as to how you can both become better at networking as well as have a better network. Here is one in particular.

In the 1960’s, Harvard social psychologist, Stanley Milgram studied what he termed the “small world” problem. He wanted to gain a better understanding of how people were connected to one another.

In one experiment, he sent to 160 randomly selected individuals in Omaha, Nebraska a packet with the name and address of a stockbroker who worked in Boston (and lived in Sharon, Massachusetts). Milgram instructed each individual to write their name on the roster in the packet and then mail the packet to a friend or acquaintance who they thought would get it closer to the stockbroker, and so on until it reached the Boston broker.

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On average the packets reached the broker in six steps (thus the phrase “six degrees of separation”). While Milgram initially reasoned that if the packets started from 160 random points, the packets would arrive at its destination with similar randomness. Many of the chain packets, however, followed the same asymmetrical pattern to the Boston stockbroker. In all, half of the responses that got to the stockbroker were delivered by three people. Hence, the phrase “six degrees of separation” doesn’t mean that everyone is linked to everyone else in just six steps. It does mean that a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those few.

There is an easy way to explore this idea. Write down the names of 40 friends and trace them backwards to how they were introduced to you. This exercise will reveal that what people term as their “social circles” are really inverted pyramids. In other words, a large percentage of your contacts likely originated from a relatively few number of individuals. Those at the tops of these pyramids are your Network Pyramid Capstones.

Here is the consideration for you. If you are working to “jump start” your network or determine where your time is best spent, first, find your Network Pyramid Capstones. Then take one or all of your Network Pyramid Capstones to lunch, breakfast, for coffee or beer or whatever.

That is really make an effort to develop a great relationship with these people – find ways to help them and be sure they understand how they can help you. These individuals have been instrumental in building your network to this point. It is likely they will do more of the same in the future.

Networking Is Nothing New

Networking is simply human interaction and it has been with us since the beginning of time. These human interactions are really just the relationships we have with one another. How we connect. Some connections are passing. Some connections are more lasting. Some connections are seemingly lifelong.

Given this, networking is, more or less, really just human behavior. Talking. Listening. Understanding. Being empathetic, encouraging, inspiring, smiling, laughing, and being a friend. Thus, all human behavior involving other people are relationship-based and is networking.

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The wonderful thing about human behavior is that there are patterns to it. While the patterns may not be perfectly predictable – as you might find with a chemical reaction or a physics experiment – there are patterns generally there.

Whenever there are patterns, however, there is curiosity. And whenever there is curiosity, you will find people of science trying to explain the patterns through studying, observing, and examining them.

Human behavior involving our relationships is no different. The social sciences – sociology, psychology, and economics, just to name a few – for years have examined how humans relate to one another, both personally and professionally.