Facebook: Shrinking the Universe by 4.74 Degrees of Separation

By Yonatan Gordon

In our previous articles we spoke about seeing faces and sharing ideas. This present article will discuss the art of positively connecting with others.

In November 2011, Facebook announced that there were now 4.74 degrees of separation among their 721 million active users. Jewish thought may instead call these degrees of connection because the number 474 is also equal to the sefirah of knowledge (דַעַת); the power of connection in the soul.

To be connected in this sense means to recognize the other person. As Facebook wrote when announcing their findings:

Thus, when considering even the most distant Facebook user in the Siberian tundra or the Peruvian rainforest, a friend of your friend probably knows a friend of their friend.

When we speak of 4.74 degrees between people, we are really asking: What does it take to recognize a person living on the opposite side of the world?

How 474 Connects

If you count from the beginning of the Torah, the 474th word is “when they were created” (בְּהִבָּרְאָם) . In the Tanya, it is explained that the sefirah of knowledge is the source that enables a person to bind and connect with something. So this 474th word of the Torah, the “knowledge” word of the Torah (דַעַת = 474), alludes to God’s power to connect with His creation.

The letters “when they were created” (בְּהִבָּרְאָם) also permutes to spell “with Abraham” (בְּאַבְרָהָם), suggesting that the heavens and the earth were created with the loving-kindness of Abraham. To explain further, God binds and connects Himself with creation through Abraham and to his soul root in loving-kindness. So when meditating on how our connection to others comes in measurements of 474, we should really be focusing our attention on Abraham and his loving-kindness for others.

Six Degrees

Before Facebook’s 4.74 degrees, the concepts was known simply as the “six degrees of separation.” That is, that any two people are on average separated by no more than six intermediate connections.

The idea was first proposed in 1929 by Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy, and dramatized by the play and movie by John Guare. Since 1994, the concept was once again made popular by actor Kevin Bacon.

Instead of six degrees of separation, Jewish thought approaches it as six degrees of connectivity. Consciousness (dei’ot) has a value of 79 and when multiplied by six equals 474 (knowledge). Thus when seeking to connect with others, there are always six doors or chambers of the heart that need to be opened.

The Zohar calls knowledge the key that opens up the six chambers of the heart. In order to know and recognize others, we must first learn to know ourselves.

Knowledge is associated with the soul powers of memory and concentration. To be connected to others also means to be sensitive to (הרגיש) and recognize (הכרה) the meaningful thoughts and ideas of others.

Small World Phenomenon

The world is shrinking. Not only in the way we interact with one another, but in the time it takes to correspond. If the wonder of technology and the internet was that it lets us interact with people on the other side of the world, the new wonder today is how fast we can recognize new faces (see our previous essay: Facebook – The Great Search for New Faces).

We begin to recognize others when we recognize and untap our own capabilities (to friend or like myself). Our six degrees of separation are the six chambers of the heart that we need to traverse before we can truly connect with others.

Now the smallest degree of separation between two objects is one. That is why the Tanya states to look beyond the physical: “only the bodies are distinct from each other” but all Israel finds their “joy in the joy of the soul alone.” By viewing our souls as primary, we reach a separation point of zero. From this zero perspective we can recognize the true one God that connects us all.

Seeing the Tree in the Forest

The number 474 is also equal to to the “tree of the field” (עֵץ הַשָׂדֶה) as in the expression “Man is likened to the tree of the field.” (Deuteronomy 20:19). Significantly, the numerical value of the Hebrew word “tree” (עֵץ) is 160, identical to the numerical value of “image” (צלם).

This echoes what we saw earlier that the entire heavens and the earth were created “with Abraham.” The Torah relates that man was created “in the image of God” (בצלם א־להים) which equals 248, the same as Abraham. So too, the image of the tree in the field is an Abraham image. As Abraham was the first to seek God’s unity and the first patriarch of the Jewish people, to reduce degrees of separation, a person should first be connected to the tree of Abraham and the Righteous of Israel.

Wonder of Wonders

In 2008, Facebook found that instead of 4.74 degrees between people, it was more like 5.28. Is there some significance we can glean from this 5.28 number as well?

Amazingly the number 528 is the triangle of 32 (the sum of all numbers from 1 to 32). 32 is the numerical value of “heart” ( לב)!

While 474 signifies the six chambers of the heart and the word “knowledge” itself, 528 pertains to to the essence of free choice which is in the heart. Adam and Eve would have merited the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden had they not succumb to the temptations of the heart to taste from the Tree of Knowledge. Hence to get to connect with the “tree of the field” (as mentioned “474” or righteous individuals), we need to first successfully pass through the trials of temptation (as expressed by the value 528).


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