Why is Kevin bacon Not My Friend? The limits to networking

Everyone knows about the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”. You can link any movie star to Kevin Bacon in six moves or fewer. According to network theory you can link anyone in the world to anyone else in six moves. It’s approximately true; Stanley Milgram, the Harvard sociologist demonstrated it in a series of experiments in the 1960’s. He gave parcels with no address, just a name and a city, to random people dotted about the United States and asked them to get the parcel to the person by asking their friends to post it on to someone they knew until it got to the destination. The parcels that arrived got there, on average, in around six moves.

But the curious thing is, that even though I, too, may be only six degrees from Kevin Bacon, I have made no real attempt to get closer to him. Why is that?

If I hung out more with Kevin Bacon I am pretty sure I would have a more interesting life, I would have access to more exciting people and more opportunities. But I can only get to him by investing time in my network connections. I have to build a trusting and intimate relationship with that friend of mine who is a casting director for a television company. I then have to build a trusting relationship with her friend who hangs out with the makeup artist who sometimes works in Hollywood and so on through the chain until I get out to California, I’m at the party, and my new friend (number five in the chain) says: “Kevin!! Hi! - Come over and meet this new guy!”

Even if Kevin and I didn’t hit it off, I would have made a lot of friends along the way, so it might all be worth it. But it is a huge investment of time and emotional energy and resources; and in developing these new friends I would have lost some old ones. By the time I get back from California with my new gang of showbiz friends, my wife may have left me and taken the kids. So we don’t tend to make radical changes to our core networks unless we are driven to it. We are too scared of losing what we have.

The really interesting thing about Milgram’s experiment is that only a handful of parcels got there. The one’s that did arrive fitted the theory alright, but hundreds didn’t make it at all. As soon as they moved two or three steps away from the sender, they were outside the sender’s core network and nobody really cared what happened to them.

Having people around you that you really know and trust is vital for your survival. They will protect you when you are vulnerable. They will give you support and status and share their resources with you when you are in need. But according to research by Robin Dunbar on human social networks, there is also a strict limit to the number of these relationships that you can sustain. Your close network of friends and intimates are the source of your self-esteem and confidence. But they also limit you.

And according to the research, we have a limited number of them. We may know a lot of people (the average is about 150) but we only really connect with about 20 of those at any one time and of those, we only really trust and depend on a handful: four or five at the most. There is, for the vast majority of us, a strict limit to the number of close relationships we can handle. And the closer and more intimate the relationships, the fewer of them there are. No-one has a hundred close and intimate friends.

So: If we can only relate properly to a limited number of people at a time, and we can only really trust a handful of them. Who are they? Who is in the cast of the play we are in? Our networks of relationships provide us with resources, support and the status that enable us to operate effectively in the world, but they can equally easily limit us to “small worlds” where innovation is a struggle and change hard to cope with.

By the time we are adults we have a network of relationships that link us with others. You could look at this network as the cast of characters in the play of your life. We have our work life, our home life, our family life, our friendship group. And, while we may play a different role in each one of these productions, we are the same person in each role. We don’t change our core personality very much, but we do play different parts. The context brings out different aspects of us.

We have an idea about who we are and what we are capable of, that is deeply attached to the network we are in; to the role we happen to have in the play we are in. Change the cast, change the costumes, change the scenery, take the actors out of their familiar group of friends and relations and build another group, and they are capable of anything.

Theatre ensembles are small, rarely more than twenty or twenty five people, often fewer. Theatre companies have evolved processes over the years that are designed to bond a group together with the purpose of liberating the creative possibilities of everyone. Under the leadership of a director, a theatre ensemble is able rapidly to adapt, to improvise and create, in order to provide the innovations that will make a performance unique and successful. We can learn a lot from the theatre arts about how to cast, rehearse and lead the ensembles that we need, to bring about change in our lives and in our work.

Anyone can play the priest, and anyone can play the torturer. But there is a price to be paid; we may be obliged to let go of old relationships as we build new ones and if we are to embark on creating a new drama, we need a director we can trust and a good script that will tell us where it is going and how it might end.