Small World Theory: The ALS Icebucket Challenge And Six Degrees Of Separation
SO. We’ve all seen those videos of tossers throwing iced water over themselves: everyone from terribly famous people like Giselle Bundchen and Bill Gates to random Belgians standing under firefighting planes. But little do people know that this is one of the great examples of “small world” theory. A specialist branch of mathematics which tries to explain how the world is put together, how society communicates. Other examples include the Kevin Bacon game and an oddity called an Erdos Number. These sorts of examples are used to explain how news travels over the internet, among other things.
This ALS Icebucket Challenge is another example of this same idea: that while there’s billions of us out here we’re really only a few connections away from everyone else. It’s usually possibly to connect between two people in four or five steps: and it’s a very rate person indeed that we can’t get to in seven or less (think lost amazon tribes to get to that distance away from any one other person):
The challenge started with Charles Kennedy, a golfer from Florida, who was responding to a friend who told him ‘pour ice over your head and I’ll donate to the charity of your choice’.
He chose ALS because his cousin is a sufferer of the disease.
He then challenged his cousin’s wife, and the challenges eventually reached New York-based ALS activist Pat Quinn who documents his battle with the disease on the website Quinn 4 The Win.
Through Mr Quinn’s network it spread to former Boston college baseball player Pete Frates, also an ALS sufferer, whose friend Corey Griffin reportedly raised $US100,000 on behalf of his friend before he died in tragic diving accident almost two weeks ago.
The challenge then spread around athletes all over Boston including New England Patriots player Julian Edelman.
He nominated teammate Tom Brady, and it eventually spread to his model wife Giselle Bundchen as well as singer Justin Timberlake.
From there, it exploded.
And that’s the way it works. Within human society there are networks: obviously there are, circles of friends, people you know. And we can have a little story that runs around such a circle and then dies. But there are always people who are what is known as “nodes”. That is, people who are part of one or more networks. And if they pick up that piece of news (or charity campaign or whatever) then it will spread from one largely self-contained network to another and the more networks that node belongs to the more of those local networks the meme will infect. And yes, this is the way that diseases spread too which is why we can use the language this way to describe it.
With the Kevin Bacon game we’re using an actor who has had a very wide range of screen partners over the years. He’s the node: and we find that we can get to just about anyone who has ever acted in a Hollywood movie in under 7 links from him. Erdos was a mathematician who wrote lots of academic papers with a huge number of different people. And we can get from just about any 20th cent mathematician to just about any other one (and to a huge number of people in other sciences as well) in under those 7 steps. Erdos is the node.
So it is with this ALS Icebucket Challenge. It could have just rolled along as some minor meme: but then it hit a node like Giselle Bundchen (and who wouldn’t like to see her in a wet t-shirt contest?) and it then spread to other such nodes and thus became ubiquitous.
This just is the way that news spreads: also diseases. It’s fun when it’s an online video challenge but not so much when it’s some new plague like Ebola.