Six Degrees of Imagination

A few years ago, I participated in the Small World experiment being conducted online by Duncan Watts and Steven Strogatz. I did not succeed in reaching my targets, although I made a sincere effort. It was around the time that I was a member of an early social networking site called sixdegrees, which unfortunately became extinct after a short time (I bet they’re looking at facebook now and kicking themselves....).

I was wondering if anyone had tried running such an experiment since the advent of twitter? The targets wouldn’t have to be twitter users, but I think it could help people get through several of the steps faster (particularly with others retweeting the message). Do my connexions on twitter count, for the purposes of the Small Word thesis? I don’t know - to be sure, most of my Twitter list are people I have not met in real life, but is that different from other forms of social networking online? Of course it’s not the same as a close friendship, but are these connexions less “real” than having spoken for five minutes and exchanged business cards at a cocktail party - the kind of loose links that by my understanding the Six Degrees concept depends on?

Then I started thinking about applying the Six Degrees concept in history. Could it be valid, for instance, in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world? Or the nineteenth-century British empire? There’s been research on kinship networks, particularly among trade families across the Atlantic, and Benjamin Franklin’s diaries demonstrated the links among Americans in London. However, there also seems to be a sense in which affective community links are perceived as, if not entirely imaginary, then at least somewhat invented. The fact that they were in some cases not reciprocated is another element: French colonists in Louisiana wrote many more letters “home” than they received back; and while a colonist would read a Metropolitan newspaper (in fact they hungered for regular updates of goings-on in the capital), the reverse was unlikely to be true.[1]

Many of you are no doubt familiar with Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. He describes the development of nationalism, and a sense of community sympathy among otherwise disparate groups who shared a written language. Indeed, it was through written communication (and receipt of newspapers, magazines, etc) that people in colonial sites still felt connected to not only the metropole but other sites in the empire. As Kirsten McKenzie has shown, those networks were often strengthened by the transfer of colonial administrators between different locations, meaning that these communities were not entirely “imagined” either: officials in the Cape Colony, or Jamaica, or New South Wales, or Nova Scotia knew each other personally.[2]

Obviously the notion of our networked connectedness came out of 1920s social theory, and it’s hard to believe that people a hundred years prior necessarily conceived of things in that way. On the other hand, a world in which personal letters of introduction were commonly used when someone travelled to a new place meant that such networks obviously did exist (and this is leaving aside the institutional networks of trust that allowed such financial instruments as letters of credit to work internationally).

While I look at the development of community identity in my current research, I would be interested to hear suggestions or thoughts on the applicability of the small world ideas to earlier periods. 


[1]Shannon Lee Dawdy, Building the Devil’s Empire, (Chicago: 2008)

[2]Kirsten McKenzie, Scandal in the Colonies: Sydney and Cape Town, 1800-1850, (Melbourne: 2004); see also David Lambert and Alan Lester, Colonial Lives Across the British Empire: Imperial Careering in the Long Nineteenth Century, (Cambridge: 2006).