Silliness as a Discovery Process

The Internet, like Monty Python’s Camelot, is a silly place.

That’s why it’s valuable.

Here’s what I mean.

Back in 1929, the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy developed the idea of “six degrees of separation,” which states that everyone is linked together by chains of connection no more than six links long. That idea was then picked up and made famous by the playwright John Guare in his 1990 play, Six Degrees of Separation.

In 1994, some snowbound college kids (obviously well educated and quite possibly chemically enhanced) were watching Footloose. They connected the popularity of lead actor Kevin Bacon with their knowledge of Guare and Karinthy, and the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” was born. For those who are unfamiliar with the game, the object is to connect any actor — through his or her films — to Kevin Bacon in less than six steps. The casual game became a website called “The Oracle of Bacon.”

Out of silliness came a second career for Kevin Bacon who has been smart enough to have fun and do some good with his status as the oddball darling of social media.

So far, so silly.

But just this month a group of scholars from Carnegie Mellon has released the beta version of a website called “Six Degrees of Francis Bacon.” The website is a collaborative envisioning of the early modern social network. It tracks 13,000 early modern people, shows us who is likely to have known whom, and allows us to track the connections they have in c…