everyone is Kevin Bacon

(in Washington, DC) Friends who were with me at the first National Action Civics Conference this weekend in Chicago–see my HuffPost piece for more on the conference–know that a running joke emerged there. Because I had helped to connect some of the groups that formed the Action Civics collaborative and knew most of the people at the conference, people started calling me the “Kevin Bacon of Civics.” Flattering–but I could prove that several other individuals in the room were just as connected as I am.

In fact, 875 other movie actors are better connected than Kevin Bacon is. The reference, of course, is to a game that three college students invented when they realized that they could link the actor, Mr. Bacon, to any other actor in Hollywood by no more than three links (where a “link” means appearing together in a movie or commercial). They concluded that Kevin Bacon is extraordinarily well connected. But Albert-László Barabási and his colleagues have found that Hollywood forms a dense network in which almost all actors are within three links of each other. (See his book Linked, pp. 59ff). Hundreds are more central to the network than Kevin Bacon is.

Now, it is possible that civic education is not as tight a network as Hollywood is, so that only a few people in civics have many links within the field. In fact, I think I have demonstrated through network-mapping that the civic renewal field is insufficiently networked. If there are only a few “Kevin Bacons of Civics,” we have a problem. But there are certainly more than just me.

How is it possible for an illusion to form that one individual is a uniquely significant network hub? Basically, you randomly start by exploring one person’s links and, if the network is pretty tight, he or she seems to be in the middle of it all. George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871) is a brilliant book about networks, and Eliot already saw how the illusion could form:

Your pier-glass [mirror] or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent …. [Chapter 27]

Her mention of “egoism” is a warning against thinking that your network position is unusually significant.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.