Kevin Bacon, Facebook and The Social Brain
In the UK, we tend to see a lot of the American actor Kevin Bacon, currently advertising the phone network EE (and previously Orange and Logitech). I suppose the fame of the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon makes him a perfect choice to advertise a network. The premise of this game is that any Hollywood actor is only 6 friends away from being able to connect personally with Kevin Bacon. In fact, actors get assigned their ‘Bacon Number’ to indicate how near or far they are from their goal. The game draws on the concept of Six Degrees of Separation which originated in the late 1920’s from a short story by Frigyes Karinthy and was taken up later in a play by John Guare written in the 1990’s – both explore the power of social networks.
There is another thing happening here too. Any of us potential EE customers is also only six friends away from Kevin: “It’s a beautiful concept,” he says, “because we really all are connected.” In 2010, Facebook conducted an experiment just before the US congressional midterms to encourage people to vote. Some Facebook members could choose to click on an ‘I Voted” button at the top of their feed, others in the randomised trial could click on a different “I Voted” button. The crucial difference was that the second was surrounded with profile pictures of their Facebook friends who had already voted. The images of the friends and connections produced more voting responses than the simple “I Voted” button, which, when scaled up – and given the close-run nature of politics in the US - was a significant finding.
So, we have Kevin Bacon, the friendly face (we’re only 6 clicks away from him, after all) smiling at us alongside the EE sign up button. Kevin creates a connection between us and a large and otherwise faceless organisation. The network somehow becomes more human. This, of course, is why businesses pay for ‘influencers’ – ultimately, we identify with people and not products or services. This kind of identification is only the first step though – human beings need far more active and deeper connection than any ambassador can provide, even Kevin. In our upcoming book, The Social Brain, we take some of these ideas and explore the numbers behind networks (a must-read for anyone working in an organisation of more than 150 people…) as well as the under-appreciated power of friendship and its connection to performance. In our book, Associate Professor at Warwick Business School, Piers Ibbotson remarks, “I could quite easily – for instance, perhaps in even less than six steps – have direct contact with the Pope, say”. But he reflects that it could take up so much time and social capital that “my partner would probably leave me!”
Of course, Linked In also lives and dies according to this principle of degrees of separation and lack of time. I wonder if it could take me to Kevin in six steps?
Let me know if anyone thinks they could be step one and I’ll try…