Three Degrees of Separation At SXSW

Genetic Network SXSWFor the tens of thousands of people at the South by Southwest conference in Austin this week, attending is about more than just seeing new music and hearing about new ideas, it’s about making new connections.

But 23andMe researchers found that just about everybody there is already connected. In fact any two people attending the SXSW conference is connected through just one or two or three other individuals.

Why is this a revelation?

This isn’t a social connection; it’s a genetic connection. It’s not that you are connected to someone else because of who you know, it’s that you are connected to someone else because of who you are related to.

Previous theories of connectivity focused on social connections; the idea that we are all — all seven billion of us — linked to each other by six degrees of separation. These links were first written about by Stanley Milgram from experiments he did in the late 1960s. It’s a little more complicated than what Milgram theorized but he got the gist right. More recently Facebook and LinkedIn have shown that just four social connections could link any two people together.

This theory of connectivity even spawned the game, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” Kevin is talking in Austin this week. But the theory of social connections that spawned the game doesn’t quite match how close we all really are.  23andMe can connect an attendee at SXSW to any other atttendee through three or four genetic connections. To do that we would make the connection by finding someone an attendee is related to, who is related to someone who then connects them to someone else at SXSW. There may be two or three cousins that separate each attendee from someone else at the conference, but the connection the two have is made through genetics.

Looking at the SXSW Interactive portion of the conference, every one of the 30,000 of those people going has a cousin in attendance. A few may have as many as 35 first cousins, meaning that they share a grandparent. On average everyone there has between one or two second cousins, meaning that that they each share the same great grandparent.

SXSW is about bringing people together, but they are all already closer than they know.