Six degrees to nowhere

A Web site that connects you to everyone you don't need to know.

Published September 21, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

It's a concept without a reason to live: that everyone in the world is connected by six people. Yes, the person serving you that juicy Big Mac at McDonald's may be your friend's roommate's cousin's co-worker's boyfriend's sister. OK, but so what?

First conceived of by the inventor of the telegraph, and later popularized by John Guare in his play "Six Degrees of Separation," -- in which an impostor weasels his way into a wealthy family by pretending some friend-of-the-family connections -- the six degrees of separation principle argues that everyone is connected to everyone else. But although it's an idea that makes for good storytelling, and has offered endless hours of fun for fans of Kevin Bacon, there's not much to six degrees beyond anecdotal entertainment.

That hasn't stopped the Web site sixdegrees, which launched in May 1997, from struggling to find a purpose for the concept. Sixdegrees offers a unique twist on an old Web standard -- the special-interest community and chat room -- by letting you search for people who know your friends, your friends' friends and so on. In other words, it's your own personal six degrees of separation: or, as an explanation on the sixdegrees site puts it, "There's a whole world of contacts out there that you never knew you had ... Our free networking services let you find the people you want to know through the people you already know."

This is how it works: You input your biographical information, including your profession, favorite Web sites, hobbies and (oddly) any random celebrity encounters you might have had. You then sign up as many friends, acquaintances, family members, fellow alums, co-workers, life partners, etc. as you can recall. Sixdegrees, in a rather savvy marketing move, e-mails your contacts and asks them to both confirm the relationship and fill in their own contacts.

Sixdegrees then graphs a web of contacts between the people registered on the site -- what contacts you share in common with people in your circle, who your friends know and who your friends' friends know. I, for example, have fourteen contacts in my inner circle, 169 in my second degree, 825 in my third, 3,279 in my fourth, 10,367 in my fifth and 26,075 in my sixth.

Why do I care that there are 26,075 people who are six degrees away from me? Well, I'm not quite sure. And what can I do with these sudden cozy friends? I can see which of these people are online, and maybe have a chat with them. I can search through their lifestyles and interests and professions, and send them "degree mail" if they strike my fancy. I can read about their encounters with celebrities (although I have yet to determine why I should care that some random stranger once saw Cindy Crawford in church), peruse their hot lists of Web sites or their recommended movies.

That is, if they've filled in the blanks. This is one of the fatal flaws of the site -- it's only as rich as the content within. It's hard to know if the people in your outer circles are people you would indeed "want to know," especially if they haven't posted their biographical information. And although sixdegrees claims more than a million people are registered, very few of them seem to have bothered to detail their preferences and lifestyle, and even fewer seem to check the site regularly. I kept clicking on the bios of people in my second and third degrees, and finding nothing save for their name and e-mail; no strangers actually responded to my unsolicited degree mail messages.

The other drawback is the site's glacial loading time. It looks great -- colorful and cute -- but all those sweet little icons take ages to load, not to mention the endless Javascript pop-up windows that open every time you click on a person's name. This is especially problematic when it comes to the instant messaging service: By the time you've clicked through multiple pages to find someone who is actually online, clicked on the person's bio, composed a message and sent it, he or she has probably logged out.

The premise behind sixdegrees is that you would want to have extemporaneous conversations with strangers on the basis of a network of contacts (as the sixdegrees reminder e-mails put it, "Your networking potential is growing by the second!"). But while random connections make for fine superficial cocktail party fodder -- you're from San Francisco? Why, my old roommate is from San Francisco! -- it's a strange reason for an out-of-the-blue e-mail to a person you've never met. It certainly wouldn't be taken seriously for business networking.

Extended networks can have their utility: if you are traveling to a foreign country, say, and want to meet a local. Or if you are trying to find people who are also in the funeral home industry, have stopped next to Tom Cruise at a stoplight, love Smashing Pumpkins or live in Rwanda, and appreciate the introduction that your tenuous connections proffer. Conversely, this can also be a rather scary proposition: How do you know that John Smith, who is 5 degrees separated from your co-worker's ex-boyfriend, has good intentions when he invites you to meet for coffee? And the statute of degrees can only reach so far: While you might be happy to meet up with a friend's friend, would you be so interested in talking to a person in your sixth degree?

Perhaps sixdegrees is best for Web neophytes who are both interested in meeting people with like interests, and who aren't jaded by networks of friends who are already online. Me, I kept doing searches for my Webby friends, registering them, and sending them little messages ("Hey, are you online? So am I. Wow"). I could have done the same thing in e-mail a lot faster and easier. And it certainly didn't help me meet many new people: The only stranger I heard from simply knew the magazine I worked for and wanted to send me a note praising our work (I get identical notes in my e-mail in box several times a week).

Sixdegrees offers an interesting concept, and it's mildly entertaining to see that there are millions of people out in the world you're connected to (however tenuously). And it's funny to track the way the meme spreads like wildfire: One person who joins the site and inputs her friends can trigger a tidal wave of registrations within her extended network of friends and contacts.

But beyond the glorified concept, sixdegrees doesn't have much more to offer than you would find on, say, Geocities or the Globe, or any other personalized community on the Web that purports to connect people with other people they might share common interests with. The only difference is a pretension of purposeful contact.

And on the Net, which was built on accidental contacts and off-the-cuff interactions, who needs an excuse to talk anyway?

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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