If you’ve ever sat down on the plastic seat of a toilet in Bronfman, Redpath, or Stewart Bio, you may have noticed a name written in black marker on the inside of the cubicle: “Sean Turner.” What started a few years ago as a joke among a group of friends snowballed into a campus-wide Sean Turner bathroom-graffiti extravaganza, which, for a time, almost every student at McGill seemed to be in on.
In Bronfman, one piece of bathroom writing neatly read, “Sean Turner holds debt with no financial distress.” A Sean Turner scribble found its way into a stall at Biftek. Names that other people had graffitied in McGill bathrooms were crossed out with Sean Turner scrawled in their place. And whenever the name Sean Turner pops up in conversation, someone will inevitably ask if anyone has actually met the man – does he exist? Or is he simply the figment of some bored student’s imagination?
Sean Turner, it turns out, was a McGill engineering student. And one evening last summer, in the dingy living room of a house party on Clark, I met the legend in the flesh. He was shorter than I’d imagined and, perhaps, a little thinner, but when a friend confirmed that he was indeed the Sean Turner, I had to go over and introduce myself.
“Hey, um, are you Sean Turner?” I asked. “Yeah, that’s me,” said Sean Turner.
“Crazy,” I said, suddenly feeling rather awkward. “The bathroom guy.” He nodded, slowly, and then we just stared at each for a few seconds.
“I’m, um, Dan Lametti, by the way.”
“Oh yeah,” said Sean Turner, “I’ve heard of you.”
My mind exploded.
Sean Turner had heard of me? How was this possible? He was the guy McGill students wrote about in bathrooms and I was just, well, a guy – no one had ever written my name on a bathroom stall (at least, not that I knew of). How did Sean Turner know me?
The world, it seems, is a small place. Everyone has a story about running into someone they know or someone who knows someone they know in an exotic location. In 1969, a psychologist at City University in New York named Stanley Milgram decided to figure out just how connected a random person was to any other random person.
Milgram’s experiment, called The Small World Problem, was simple: he mailed 296 random Americans a packet with a set of instructions and the name of a “target” person and their occupation. If the recipients didn’t know the target – and none of them did – they were told to mail the packet to a friend or acquaintance who they thought might; whoever then received the packet was instructed to do the same, forming an “acquaintance chain” that hopefully ended at the target.
Of the 296 people Milgram sent packets to, 217 agreed to participate in the study, thoughtfully mailing the packet on to a friend or acquaintance. In the end, a number of participants dropped out and only 64 packets reached the target, a stockbroker living in Massachusetts. But the packets that did make it only had to go through about six people, and Milgram famously concluded that only six people – or six degrees of separation – stand between any one American and any other American.
Thirty-five years later, researchers at Columbia University used the Internet to replicate Milgram’s study on a global scale. Sixty-thousand randomly selected email users attempted to reach one of 18 targets located in 13 countries: an Ivy League professor, a policeman in Australia, and an archival inspector in Estonia, to name three. Remarkably, even though the targets were scattered around the world, the email message reached its destination in about six steps.
So how did Sean Turner know me? Milgram noted that 25 per cent of the packets that reached the stockbroker ended up going through one person: his neighbour. The neighbour was a social “connector” – a term coined by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell. In my case, the social connector was my best friend’s girlfriend, Brynn, who, being a socialite, happened to be good friends with Sean Turner’s girlfriend. Small world.
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