Chance or No Chance?

I was chagrined to read this fall that what had passed for astounding coincidence in my life had really been some game theory model that mathematically predicted seemingly chance meetings and the often delightful discovery of connections that were likely to ensue.  Full disclosure: I was more than chagrined; I was downright devastated. And why not? I had built my life around serendipity.  Never contriving it, of course, just relishing its element of surprise to the fullest.

And now, Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations, shot my ethereal encounters down with one trigger pull, claiming that the odds of bumping into people you know or who know someone you know are actually remarkably probable.  Or so state the laws of probability.

Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody


But for all of his technological prowess and adeptness at explaining the nuances of social media in a compelling way, Shirky and I part ways when it comes to some of the value he ascribes to social networking. You see, while the odds might favor me unwittingly taking a seat on a plane next to a friend of the best man at my wedding, it was our engagement in casual conversation that brought this fact to light.

Said man and I were in flight for barely an hour on a short jaunt from Kansas City to St. Louis.  In that space of time, he and I small-talked long enough about work, where we hailed from, and why we were both headed to St. Louis (he enroute home and me to a conference) that we eventually got around to discovering that Wayne, my husband’s college roommate, was a common link between us.  We both found the discovery slightly amazing.

Now, had I sat down next to him and showed him a list of all the people I knew and had him show me a list of all the people he knew, we could have gotten to Wayne a lot faster.  But would it have been nearly as interesting or sociolinguistically complex?  I doubt it.

Is small talk the 20th century version of the handwritten letters of previous centuries and telegrams but a quaint precursor of text messages?  Are the continually evolving modes of communication which necessarily hinge on available technology always bound to upend existing sociolinguistic protocols?  The lack of phone booths with doors and the now ubiquitous Facebook would make it appear so.

Which leads me to wonder, what value is there now in such chance or, if you insist, utterly predictable encounters with other people? Has the sociocultural paradigm shift spawned by social media rendered us mere algorithmic blips to each other?

And, frankly, where exactly does all of this leave Kevin Bacon?

Kevin Bacon, sans degrees of separation


6 thoughts on “Chance or No Chance?

  1. Great questions, Mary. I have this theory that we meet people all the time we’re connected with in some way, often profound, but don’t discover it. Sometimes we do, and it’s amazing, but I think more often we don’t. Like that guy on the plane, if you hadn’t talked, because one of you had a headache or was too distracted or one of you thought the other was creepy, you would never have known of your amazing connection. And about here I’m wondering what my point was. Oh yeah, that we’re connected in big and small ways to almost everyone. And when we meet people and start telling stories, as people are wont to do, maybe we are trying to suss out those links as much as we are trying to bond with strangers. We are trying to find out if they aren’t strangers. Even if it’s just that the nice old lady at the luncheon went to the same college as my sister. But they were different years. So they couldn’t have met. Could they?

    • Richard:
      You make great points, as usual. I think the connections we make with other people are utterly profound somehow and I do assign great value to them. I like your idea that we don’t always discover them and yet they are available to us, perhaps unconsciously. I also appreciate your bringing up the human need to tell stories, especially our own—that seems like a huge driver in f2f communications and perhaps serves the most primal purpose of our trying to find out, as you say, “if they aren’t strangers.” Perhaps small talk isn’t so small, after all.

  2. Mary,

    What are the odds that we would bump into each other shopping on the day after Christmas of all places Kohl’s? I thought Target was our annual shopping place to meet up. The funny thing is I fear that if we plan it, we risk dooming it to fail!

    • Karen:
      Exactly my point! I don’t think I’ve ever gone to Kohls on the day after Christmas! And, how about that it wasn’t even the one in our neighborhood??? I see greater cosmic retail forces at work here.

  3. My husband has these kinds of meetings a lot on airplanes. I don’t know if it’s because he travels a lot and therefore increases the chances of it happening, or he’s just weirdly cosmically connected. I agree with you, doing it by lists is boring; happenstance is much more fun and gives you good stories to tell. 🙂

    • Susan:
      I think you are on to something here. Airplanes are a natural site for chance encounters because we are typically thrown together with strangers in very close proximity which produces the perfect environment for conversing spontaneously without introductions from others. I’ve had similar experiences when I’ve stood in long lines for a long time. The other aspect that I didn’t harp on here but that is valuable, I think, is the learning of how to communicate effectively with someone while respecting all kinds of cultural and linguistic boundaries.

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