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How Six Degrees Became a Forever Meme

Mr. Guare, in a recent interview, said he first encountered the six-degrees concept in 1967, in the inaugural issue of Psychology Today, which featured a cover story about the psychologist Stanley Milgram’s “small world” experiment. The experiment involved giving a letter to random people in Omaha and Wichita, Kan., with instructions to give it to someone who could give it to someone who would help it reach a designated individual in Boston.

Evidently, Ouisa Kittredge, one half of the couple in Mr. Guare’s play, saw the same article.

“I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people,” she says during the increasingly desperate search to find “Paul” Poitier (who was based on a real con artist) after he disappears.

“The president of the United States. A gondolier in Venice,” she says. “It’s not just the big names,” she continues. “It’s anyone.”

The phrase is often seen as an inspiring, even mystical symbol. But the speech, Mr. Guare notes, was meant ironically, as a comment on racial exclusion and social stratification in America.

“The nightmare of the play becomes finding the right six people,” he said. “You can find everyone in the world, but you can’t find one black man whose name you don’t know.”

Just Add Bacon

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Kevin Bacon created an online charity, SixDegrees.org, in the wake of the popular game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Mr. Guare said he was “tickled” when he started seeing the phrase “six degrees of separation” in different contexts: an ad for Air France, a newspaper article about the 1992 presidential election. And then came Kevin Bacon.

The now-famous Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game was invented in 1994 by Craig Fass, Brian Turtle and Mike Ginelli, three students at Albright College in Reading, Pa., who were sitting around watching “Footloose.” They started naming other movies Mr. Bacon had appeared in, and came up with the idea that he was the unacknowledged center of the Hollywood universe, who connected everyone.

The three friends performed their parlor trick on “The Jon Stewart Show” on MTV a few months later. Next came a book (with an introduction by Mr. Bacon) and a board game.

Mr. Bacon (who declined to be interviewed for this article) would go on to found SixDegrees.org, which matches celebrities with charities, and star in a Visa commercial that parodied the six-degrees concept. But at a 20th-anniversary panel with Mr. Turtle and others at SXSW in Austin, Tex., in 2014, he recalled his initial mystification.

“People would come up to me and touch me and say, ‘I’m one degree!’” he said. “I didn’t really know what was going on.”

Actually, Let’s Add Data

The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon board game, which appeared in 1997, featured 20-sided dice. But the true great leap forward came a year…

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