The idea used to be that everyone in the world is no more than “six degrees of Kevin Bacon”—that any actor must have worked with someone who worked with someone who worked with someone who worked with someone who worked with someone who worked with someone who worked with Kevin Bacon. Trying to figure out those connections has been a game since Craig Fass, Brian Turtle and Mike Ginelli “slowly began to realize that Kevin Bacon was the center of the entertainment universe,” as they wrote in a 1994 letter to Jon Stewart (then the host of The Jon Stewart Show) quoted in their 1996 book about the history of the idea. (And yes, the book is also called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.) They appeared on Stewart’s show to demonstrate, and a legend was born.
It turns out that six degrees can be rather hard to determine. When you’re relying on your brain, like you might have in the good old mid-’90s, it’s pretty hard to think of those connections—but if you’re near a search engine the game might get easier.
Now there’s proof: Google has just launched a “Bacon number” search feature. Just add those magic words to a celebrity’s name (as in: “Tom Cruise Bacon number”) and get the answer (as in: “Tom Cruise’s Bacon number is 1”) and the reason (A Few Good Men). “We’re always trying to provide users with the best answer for what they’re looking for and as quickly as possible,” explains Google’s Yossi Matias, an engineering director and head of Google’s Israel Engineering Center. And sometimes what you’re looking for is a Bacon Number.
The project is not all fun and games. It’s a good way for the search engineers to test how to search for and analyze connections, rather than individual search terms. “The notion of [the Bacon Number] is based on a pretty popular term among mathematicians and scientists, called the Erdös Number,” says Matias, referencing the theory that all mathematicians have some degree of collaboration with the mathematician Paul Erdös. “People are quite fascinated by these small-world phenomena.” And the world may be smaller than you think. Most actors that you can think of clock in with a Bacon number of one or two—or a 0, if you search for “Kevin Bacon Bacon number.” Matias says that he was surprised to learn that even Charlie Chaplin earns a two. (But the Google team did disprove the idea that everyone can do it in six: the Russian-Ukranian baritone singer Igor Morozov is ten full degrees away from Kevin Bacon.)
Outside of the trivia game, the six degrees of Kevin Bacon idea eventually expanded to include everyone in the world—you and I and everyone else must know someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows the actor Kevin Bacon—and in 2007 the actor started a charitable organization called SixDegrees.org, based on the small-world concept.
Google, however, doesn’t know from non-movie connections. It doesn’t even know all movie connections, as Vulture discovered, since it’s based on the Google Knowledge Graph—the collection of information about 500 million entities that feeds the right-hand side of your Google search results page—rather than IMDb. Its competitor—if this is a competition— is The Oracle of Bacon, which does use IMDb’s data and thus returns results for actors who haven’t yet made into onto the Knowledge Graph (like this summer’s breakout star Quvenzhané Wallis, from Beasts of the Southern Wild, who Google doesn’t yet know is three degrees of Kevin Bacon). “Nothing is entirely perfect but most actors that users would be looking for are already well-represented,” says Matias. “It’s a tiny step toward the bigger mission of understanding how people and entities are related.”
But if you’re not in movies at all, don’t even bother checking. The new search feature also doubles as a little ego check: it’s a one-step way to find out whether you’re a celebrity in real life or just in your own head.