Some people look at the Grand Canyon and feel a sense of awe or affirmation. Others look at it and just feel dizzy. Both are also understandable reactions to the sheer vastness of the World Wide Web. When everything’s going right, you feel like you’re crusin’ down the information superhighway with the top down. It’s late and you’re buzzed and every hyperlinked passage on the War of the Roses Wikipedia page seems more tantalizing than the last. Other times, when the tabs and tweets and emails and links start to pile up, it can all feel incredibly overwhelming. Defeating, even.
But here’s a little factoid you can store away for those times when the Internet feels most unmanageable. You’re never more than 19 clicks away from any other site. The discovery comes from a study by Albert-László Barabási, a Hungarian physicist, published recently in a journal called Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Joseph Stromberg summarized the findings over on the Smithsonian’s Surprising Science blog:
[Barabási] discovered that of the roughly 1 trillion web documents in existence—the aforementioned 14 billion-plus pages, along with every image, video or other file hosted on every single one of them—the vast majority are poorly connected, linked to perhaps just a few other pages or documents. Distributed across the entire web, though, are a minority of pages—search engines, indexes and aggregators—that are very highly connected and can be used to move from area of the web to another. These nodes serve as the “Kevin Bacons” of the web, allowing users to navigate from most areas to most others in less than 19 clicks.
It’s not exactly clear what constitutes a "click" here. I like the idea of spanning the entire net simply by jumping from obscure hyperlink to hyperlink, like a sort of madcap Around the World in Eighty Days adventure, but I’d imagine the reality is more like traveling to a remote village in India, where any voyage will involve a flight to New Delhi—or, in this case, a swing through Google.
But the findings are still reassuring, if only conceptually. And what’s more, Barabási’s research suggests that the 19-click rule will hold true even as the web continues to grow. In 2050, when we’re accessing the Internet with our smart contact lenses and all Hollywood movies star holographic versions of Zac Efron Jr., the web will likely be as interconnected as it is today. Those movies may not, however, link back to Kevin Bacon.
*Update: According to an update on the original Smithsonian piece, the 19-clicks detail actually comes from a paper Barabási published in 1999 and is only referenced in his new study. That does, however, raise an interesting question. Though the Internet is undoubtedly much bigger, in terms of individual pages, than it was nearly 13 years ago, is it bigger in terms of clicks? You might assume so, but as the web has become more centralized with social media, and as Google has become even more refined, might the web be even [i]more interconnected than in 1999? That is, these days, could the number be even less than 19?[/i]
[Top image: A still from data artist Aaron Koblin’s seminal work in mapping flight patterns. Read more here.]