I’m traveling right now, which seems to be a theme with my blog posts….maybe I should consider a future in travel writing. Seriously though, I’m down for that if anyone knows someone…..
I just attended the ASOR meeting in Denver, and it always hits me how small the archaeology community really is. Reduce that down to the Cyprus archaeology community, and you are basically looking at a big extended family, which is what the sessions on Cyprus actually feel like- Cyprus family reunion Fall 2018. Seriously though, it is a wonderful community to be a part of, and I will always be grateful that they accepted me and made me one of theirs. I’ve said it before on here, and I will say it again and again, I don’t know how I got so lucky to be among people who want you to succeed, who give you advice and help you make connections so you do succeed and encourage you when you feel like you are not succeeding. The Cyprus archaeology family is really an extraordinary “social network.”
Social network did you say…..let’s talk about them since they are my favorite subject! I must have heard at least 5 times at the conference: “oh, you guys already know Ian? Wow, it’s a small-world.” “When you say Julie, do you mean Julie Euber? It’s such a small world.” “It’s a really small world, we met on a dig in Cyprus 10 years ago, where did you guys meet?” And on, and on, and on….
Well, that’s a big lead up to say that I really want to talk about small world networks in particular. You know what these are, you experience them all the time, and yet we are all continually amazed when we have an interaction that ends in, “wow, it’s a small world.” Do you know how social scientists first measured how small the great big world really is? If you don’t and even if you do, I’m about to tell you!
In 1967 a social psychologist named Stanley Milgram did an experiment to measure how far apart people across the US really are, not in geographical distance, but in social distance (have no fear, you will soon learn what I mean by social distance). To measure this distance Milgram and his colleagues (who were probably hard working grad students), sent out packets through the mail to 160 people in Omaha, Nebraska. The instructions told people to forward the packets to someone they knew personally who could get the packet closer to a final target individual, a stockbroker in Boston, Massachusetts. When they sent off their packets, they also sent a postcard back to Milgram and colleagues that said who they had sent them to. How could this even be possible? How could a random person in Omaha get something to someone they don’t know across a big country only through people they know directly and the people those people know directly? Surely, this is not possible! Oh, but it is, and it is way easier than you think.
So, how is this possible? It is possible, because everyone is connected to everyone else, on average, through only 6 social connections or degrees of separation. Our social distances, or the distance between two people through the people they know personally is actually really small. Wait, hold up, I just said 6 degrees of separation- ever play the game 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon? If you have not had the pleasure, here are the instructions. A player starts by naming a random actor in Hollywood. The other players have to connect that target actor to Kevin Bacon using other actors that good old KB was in movies with. Essentially you build Kevin Bacon’s social network using the other actors he has worked with in movies to a specific actor in Hollywood, but you have to do it in 6 or less social connections. KB has been in a good number of movies, at least 59, so he is connected to a lot of other actors and that means that his Hollywood network, is not only a small world- it is an ultra small world and he functions as a hub or connector within it (more below). Apparently, I’ve just learned that he is not the most connected actor, that prize goes to Rod Steiger (I have no idea who that is).
Enough about Kevin Bacon, I don’t even like him as an actor (post your dissenting views below). Let’s get back to Milgram. His work and the work of his associates showed that we are all hyper-connected, and that people who are seemingly unknowable, are actually knowable, and it wouldn’t take all that much effort to know them. Now, every time you utter the words, “it’s a small world,” you can think to yourself, “I’m experiencing the small world phenomenon” and then cite Milgram (1967). No, just kidding, that’s super weird. The point is, you are experiencing a very real and validated thing. We are all connected across the US and probably across the world…and if you are a deep thinking person, that statement just hit you really hard.
Let’s play 6 degrees of separation of you! You, by knowing me, are 4 degrees of separation from Dame Agatha Christie. I would bet that you just said no way and are in disbelief. I’m about to blow your mind: You now know me, my advisor in undergrad and for my master’s was Stuart Swiny. Stuart Swiny got his first job as director of a research institute through Sir Max Mallowan who he knew personally. Sir Max was married to Agatha Christie. That’s right, my friends, you are less than 6 degrees of separation from the greatest crime writer of our time and any other. I’ll tell you something amazing, I once held in my mortal hands a letter written on old-timey air mail paper to my advisor written and signed by Max and Agie. Oh my goodness, I thought I was going to pass out from the excitement. I mean, the person who killed someone using a ground stone artifact in Murder in Mesopotamia, and dreamed up the most clever killing of a horrible man in Murder on the Orient Express, touched that paper. I could go on about “Agie” but I’ll save that for another blog post.
Here’s another and similar connection. You are connected to former President Barack Obama through 5 social links. My PhD advisor, Michael Barton, knows John Yellen of the National Science Foundation personally. His sister is Janet Yellen who was the Vice-Chair of the Federal Reserve System. She was nominated to that position by President Obama whom she knew. You just came in better than average- awesome!
You will notice that in both of these stories, I used a former advisor and current mentor to make my first social connection. It was easy for me to connect through that person to two very famous people, because that person functions as a connector or a hub. My undergrad and master’s advisor, for example, is very well known in Cypriot archaeology and before he worked in Cyprus, he was well know across Near Eastern archaeology networks. I could probably make many links through him to well-known archaeologists and probably other people, because he is well-known and well-connected in these communities. Ready for this: well-known people know other well-known people. You knew that already, I’m sure. You also know that well-known people become even more well-known simply because they are well-known. That’s a confusing sentence, but it makes a point (cleverly I think). If you are “famous,” it is much easier to become more famous than it is for someone who is not famous to become famous or if you are rich, it is easier to become more rich than it is to go from poor to rich (I basically just gave you another confusing sentence). So, if you can link yourself to a well-known or “famous” person, you can link yourself to other famous people, hoping across different social networks not by knowing Joe and Mary but by knowing Kevin Bacon and my master’s advisor. Knowing these famous people, you can now link to Joe and Mary who once seemed really far away in terms of social distance. Your social network just grew literally by leaps and bounds by knowing just 2 famous people and didn’t just become a small world, it became an ultra-small world. Connectors or hubs or famous people serve an important role in our social networks, they link people through very short distances and make the small world phenomenon something you experience all the time!
I’m an archaeologist, and I study people who are dead, and thus cannot say to me- wow, you know Jack, it’s a small world. Now you are probably thinking, there is no way she can link long-dead people to each other. Oh, but I can! My work uses people’s stuff to model how well they were connected in the past. I don’t model who they were connected to necessarily, that’s social network analysis which is equally as cool, but just not something that I do….yet. Instead I look at the quantity and quality of things to determine how many social connections someone had while they were living- did they have a lot and are a hub or did they have a little? Did they have stuff that could only be acquired through social and economic links across long-distances? Here’s a modern example to illustrate how your stuff can show me what your social/economic network looks like: I am not a super-well connected person in terms of economic wealth (insert sad crying face emoji). I live very simply, and don’t have a lot of stuff. If you came into my home, and looked around at the quantity and the quality of my stuff, you would never say that I had many economic connections or that I was “famous” in a social network that gave me economic advantages through my connections with other famous and wealthy people. However, if you came into my home and could identify all of the things made in Cyprus, it would be very accurate to say that in some way, I have at least a few social links that extend internationally. For example, I have a cobblers shoe form that was given to me by someone in Cyprus (Frank, to be exact, and for the record, he is a major hub) who got it from a family member who was a shoe maker on Cyprus way back when. This shoe form sits among many other things from the island: baskets, pottery, brass goat bells (my favorite thing from Cyprus), pillows, picrolite (a type of stone only found on Cyprus), paintings, and other decorative things. I won’t go into tremendous detail, but I hope you see my point.
We don’t just live in a small world, we live in an ultra-small world. The connections you make and the things you do affect me, a Hazara woman in Afghanistan, a Maasai man in Kenya, my friend Frank in Cyprus, your friend Julie that I know through my own social network, Jack, Mary, Stuart, Michael, Ian, Kevin Bacon, Rod Steiger (whoever that is), and on and on….uh oh, I feel a social responsibility moment coming on. If we are all this connected, and the world truly is a super small place, maybe we have a lot more responsibility to each other than we thought.
Happy Social Network Making Everyone!
*I feel bad about not knowing who Rod Steiger is…it turns out he was born on Long Island, not all that far from where I grew up. I bet I am less than 6 degrees of separation away from him. I’m not sorry for not liking Kevin Bacon though, but I will say that Footloose really is such an important part of growing up in the 80’s, and does it really get better than this scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqGslEZ5I6c&t=17s