Providing vindication for a popular trivia game, researchers for a Microsoft-backed investigation say their in-depth study of instant messaging networks proves that all humans really are just six degrees from actor Kevin Bacon.
Well, make that 6.6 degrees.
Using data gleaned from Microsoft's Messenger IM service, the researchers found that any IM user in the world was no further away from any other in a chain of personal contacts than 6.6 degrees, or links in the chain.
"This is the first time a planetary-scale social network has been available to validate the well-known 'six-degrees of separation finding,' " wrote researchers Eric Horvitz of Microsoft and Jure Leskovec of Carnegie Mellon University, in a paper that was presented earlier this year at the WWW 2008 conference in Beijing.
Horvitz and Leskovec studied more than 30 billion chat sessions, representing about 180 million users, over IM in June 2006 to reach their conclusion. The sample was more than 2 million times larger than that used in an earlier study that also confirmed the notion of six degrees of separation.
Horvitz and Leskovec, however, rounded up from 6.6. "We might say that, via the lens provided on the world by Messenger, we find that there are about '7 degrees of separation' among people," they wrote.
The study's findings have some remarkable implications. For instance, Bill Gates is only 6 or 7 degrees away from free software advocate and Microsoft critic Richard Stallman, and John McCain -- though miles apart in age and political beliefs -- is no more than just a handful of social connections away from his presidential rival, Barack Obama.
And, of course, it shows that the reader of this story is only a handful of IM contacts away from the Footloose star himself.