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Two Degrees of Separation

We’ve all heard the phrases: “it’s a small world,” “don’t burn your bridges,” “there are six degrees of separation”. They don’t mean much except on those days of wacky coincidences and deja-vu. I always figured these things applied mainly to small communities and, well, not to me. Then I started a BBS, joined the Internet, and moved to Silicon Valley, at which point I began to realize that as people move around in this high-speed data-driven environment, it’s more than just a small world. The degree theory does not apply. Here, it’s more like two: zero & cyberspace. (Disclaimer: absolutely nothing in this article is based on any scientific fact.)

Kevin Bacon and My Friend Ben

My friend – Ben – is the Kevin Bacon of the wired world. Everybody knows somebody who knows Ben. For example, Chuck, a friend from college (Michigan – where, incidentally, they don’t need AC for server farms – they just put them outside), worked for a big consulting firm after graduation. There, he met Jason, who had previously worked with Ben in college. Alan S., whom I also met in college, did graduate work at Stanford and met up with Scott, who started a company and enlisted Alan B., who was previously Ben’s roommate in Illinois and had worked with Tamara at SGI. (Really, there is a point to the Russian-style character introduction.) Here’s where the theorizing about Ben, Kevin Bacon, and high-tech’s two degrees of separation all began. But that was all a few years after I met Ben.

I first met Ben at a conference in 1994 in Tennessee, not generally a hot spot for new tech widgets. We made friends and kept in touch by e-mail for the next few years as I moved out to Silicon Valley & he started graduate work in the mid-west. Eventually he needed a change of scenery, so he moved out to finish his PhD at Berkeley. During this time, he worked for NSF and flew all over the country doing work related to the Digital Libraries Initiative. He knows a lot of people who work in all aspects of high-tech, so somehow it came about that everybody knows somebody who knows Ben.

Convergence Points

Well-connected individuals like Ben are not that rare in high-tech. Academia breeds relationship-building and many people develop bonds that span research organizations, academic institutions, conferences, known Silicon Valley companies and related start-ups. Tamara is another example. As an undergrad at Stanford, my sister was her resident monitor in the dorms. Later as a PhD student, she shared an office with my friend, Larry (who also was friends with Alan S. from back in our Michigan days, and worked with him on projects later at Stanford.) I attended one of Tamara’s parties with my sister & a few years later at a different house party of hers with Larry & Alan. Two degree deja-vu. It was confusing at first but we eventually connected the dots.

Another place where this two-degree convergence can be found is through the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The EFF became the first place where hackers, researchers and other net pioneers could find representation that understood their world and could then explain to law enforcement agencies, judges, Congress, etc. their clients’ plights. Over time, after many successful cases and a rise to the level of Internet stardom, the EFF became a haven for articulate, brilliant people fighting for the rights of wronged technologists. The EFF’s network spans the non-profit, corporate, and government sectors in its search for allies and justice. In fact, the board members are so prominent that a Google first name vanity search for most of them finds them in the first two pages. Try it: Brad = Brad Templeton; Larry = Larry Lessig. Oh, and if you don’t know Ben, then you must know Cory, who knows everyone through BoingBoing, and the EFF, and also happens to be on the Mindjack roster.

Which brings about the concept of wired media. And I don’t mean just Wired. I mean everything wired. Now it’s blogs. Yesterday, it was web ‘zines like Salon. Before the web, we had USENET news groups and BBS chat groups. Of course, traditional media like paper magazines and newspapers apply as well, but those are generally too far behind the clock. By the time Business 2.0 arrives on the stand, half of its stories are outdated. Somehow Wired stays in the groove, but it’s the only one.

Books are tricky when it comes to new tech – as soon as they’re out, the tech is obsolete and the next version is in use. But the books are fantastic and generally are written by the researchers themselves, so they provide a fantastic resource. Companies like O’Reilly are a huge proving ground for the technical mind who can also write. And those then span into conferences, a physical location where these networkers can actually meet face-to-face, oddly enough. It works, too. They exchange ideas, email addresses, and mp3 files. The theory of Ben is not limited to just the online part of our world; au contraire – it depends quite strongly on the physical one.

Of course, the obvious convergence point in Silicon Valley is the company. Places like Sun, HP, Yahoo, eBay and Google are flourishing with networking. In the past, the big research giants like IBM held this post, but it’s passed gradually to the hot businesses of the time like SGI and Netscape along now to places like Google, where they can’t hire good new people fast enough – even in a time of a slow economy. And let’s not forget the VCs who got them here. They all know each other, and they all work together on deals. It’s naïve to think that any Tom, Dick & Harry can start a new company without knowing the names of the major VC’s on Sandhill Road or at least in downtown Palo Alto.

Technology – Duh

A big part of the convergence is technology itself. People who work on developing cyberspace are more likely to be able to use it effectively. It’s an integral part of the community. I know, I know…we war between marketing & technology departments at every organization, and someone always screws-up and cc’s the entire department on a real zinger, but there is a difference. I can’t imagine doing my job without email. Who uses the phone anymore? Maybe a cell for personal use & occasional work fires, but my land line is just for people who don’t know me and spammers.

And what about urgent technical questions? We have instant messaging, contact databases, message boards, more blogs, and we can use them all 24×7 because half of us keep wacked-out hours anyway. If your Windows-based PDA with scribbled port and protocol notes in it dies at 3am when you’re at the cage rebooting some nasty router…you’re without the data you need…what do you do? If no one has stolen your keyboard that day, you log into some lazy server, hop onto a site and ask whomever is around how to fix the thing. What has this got to do with Ben? He probably knows the guy who wrote the software. At least he’ll know someone who knows the person who wrote the software and he can find them. It’s amazing.

Deja-Vu

The challenge for the coming years as to where our networks go will depend on both the convergence points and the people within them. Our current technologies allow for communication nearly anywhere any time so that opens up infinite possibilities. It’s tough to know what will become of the Internet power brokers over the next fifty years and how high-tech networking will evolve, but one thing’s for sure: there will always be Bens, Corys and Tamaras who connect us all together and who connect with each other.

Originally posted at Mindjack.com.