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    Hosted by Leslie Walker
    Washington Post Columnist
    Thursday, March 25, 1999
    Leslie Walker
    ".com" columnist Leslie Walker.

    Welcome to ".com Live." I'm your host Leslie Walker. Every other Thursday, I'm online from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern to give you an opportunity to talk directly with entrepreneurs, visionaries and online business people on the way the Internet is changing the world of commerce.

    Read my latest .com column and then join me for a live discussion with Andrew Bein, general manager of He answered questions on building virtual communities on the Web though networking. is a Web site that builds a virtual community through the concept of "six degrees of separation." That theory holds that every person on earth is connected to everyone else through a path of six people or less. asks members to form their personal communities by listing six friends or relatives, each of whom then can add their friends and build connected communities.

    Read the transcript of this discussion.

    Leslie Walker: Can you explain the basics of how your SixDegree web site works?

    Andrew Bein: Sure.

    sixdegrees is an interactive tool which provides members with instant access to their own growing personal communities of contacts.

    Members can use the site to communicate and interact directly with their private "circle" of contacts consisting of their friends and their friend's friends -- and everyone else in the sixdegrees community.

    Seattle: All these ideas about building virtual communities on the Web sound great in theory, but as practical matter, very few wind up creating any real human bonds. What makes SixDegrees any different?

    Andrew Bein: We're different because the human bonds are there from the start.

    We're more a "real" community than a virtual community because you build your circle with real life contacts -- the people you know in real life.

    Only then do you begin to connect with people who share similar interests on sixdegrees.

    And even then, you can figure out how you are related to your online acquaintances!

    San Francisco: Is the six-degrees-of-separation theory mathematically credible or it is some abstract philosophical thing?

    Andrew Bein: That's what we've set out to find out.

    But there are also some offline scientists testing the theory -- I think they're based in Boston.

    Leslie Walker: The big fear people having in signing up for free services of any kind on the Web--especially a networking service like yours--is spam. What kind of filters or controls does SixDegrees offer so people can curb the volume of unsolicited e-mail?

    Andrew Bein: We are committed to a purely voluntary system.

    Members receive e-mails only if they indicate interest - and have the opportunity to filter out anything they do not want.

    Our special filters include who sending a message and what topic it covers.

    Leslie Walker: OK, We're here today to talk about a Web site that aspires to the super-Rolodex of the Internet. Welcome to Andrew Bein. He runs the Web site, which lets people network electronically. Andrew, let's start with this "Six Degrees" concept. Is the world really that small--and are you and I really only six friends apart?

    Andrew Bein: Maybe fewer!

    In fact, the theory of sixdegrees first proposed by Marconi, the inventor of the radio, suggests that on average everyone is 5.83 people apart.

    We've rounded it up.

    Leslie Walker: Andrew, let's back up and talk about the SixDegrees concept itself. I know the site aims to be a kind of electronic Rolodex, but tell us more about the SixDegrees idea. Didn't it come from a telegraph pioneer in the 19th century?

    Andrew Bein: Actually the inventor of the radio, Guglielmo Marconi

    Leslie Walker: So this Marconi said technology would someday enable contact
    with any human on the planet through 6 people, right? And that became the basis for a play and a movie of the same name?

    Andrew Bein: Yes -- and led to the inception of

    The idea is that everyone on the planet is connected by no more than six relationships.

    Today on sixdegrees, we connect nearly every one of our over 2 million members to each other, whether through six degrees or sixteen degrees.

    As our membership grow, we will get closer and closer to proving that six degrees theory.

    Washington DC: I and a lot of my friends do use sixdegrees - I enjoy the ability to get updates via email. are there any efforts underway to make people more inclined to go to the site more often?

    Andrew Bein: It's a major focus for us -- more is being added every day to encourage you to visit often.

    In the past few months we have added lots of new things to the site -- including special interest groups (join an existing one -- or create your own), news and information (like daily stock, horoscope and weather updates), and daily trivia.

    Keep checking us out!

    Newport RI: Why would anyone want to sign their friends or relatives up for an online network? Won't this just increase the number of SPAM messages they get?

    Andrew Bein: No -- when you sponsor new members, your contacts must confirm their relationship to you and their interest in sixdegrees.

    If they are not interested, we will not send them unsolicited e-mails.

    If they are interested, they too can filter the e-mails they receive from us.

    Bethesda, MD: Philosophically speaking, do you have any hopes that, by showing the world just how connected each of us is to one another, that- as John Donne put it- "no man is an island, entire of itself"- that in some way Six Degrees can help facilitate global unity, world peace, and less fighting on daytime talk shows? (3 year member)

    Andrew Bein: Absolutely -- we'd love to think that connecting people gets us one step closer to a better planet.

    dave, VA: What benefits do I receive by becoming a member of your service? What can I expect?

    Andrew Bein: You can
    - join special interest groups
    - chat live (like this!) with old friends and new acquaintances
    - leverage your existing relationships to meet new people (Looking for a nanny in Detroit? Your friend's friend's friends are much better sources than total strangers)

    Springfield, VA: Do you keep track of all the "threads" or discussions that take place?

    Andrew Bein: Yes -- the threads for bulletin board postings (to your inner circle and to the interest groups you join) are available for you to view at any time.

    We've put in some new ways to easily categorize these threads to give better access to needed information.

    Leslie Walker: We're about halfway through today's chat. We are still open for questions. So keep them rolling in! And for those of you who sent in questions about today's Amway column, stay tuned. I'll answer them at the end of the SixDegrees chat.

    Leslie Walker: Andrew, I got my introduction to SixDegrees last month when I was looking for people who use a certain software program to see how they liked it. Someone posted my question on SixDegrees-- and I was amazed that more than 30 e-mails rolled into my mailbox almost at once from all over the world.

    What can you tell us about your membership? Are their demographics just like the Web at large, or are more in the U.S.? Also, is it more personal or business use?

    Andrew Bein:
    Much of our membership is from the US (65%), but there is a strong base internationally too (35%).

    Younger members (teens and college students) tend to use the site for socializing, while older members use us more for business purposes.

    The most exciting opportunity is when the two mix -- when your best friend's uncle's friend finds your son a job.

    Washington, DC: My friends and I have a "virtual community" with one of the big portal companies where we share news and other fun stuff. But after a while as our site grows, it has become intolerably slow. how do you anticipate fixing problems such as this?

    Andrew Bein: We are devoting enormous resources (time and money) to scale our site to be fast, responsive and available at all times.

    After some rough patches in the early going, we are getting better and better at this.

    Hyattsville, MD: So what are some of the most remarkable or interesting stories of people who are connected by six degrees or less?

    Andrew Bein: We have members who have used sixdegrees to fall in love, find a spouse, find a job, find an old friend, find help -- we have documented many of these stories in the Testimonials page of our site (

    You may want to check this out!

    Toledo, OH: Do you really believe that I am separated by six degrees from a yak herder in Mongolia, or is the Six Degrees theory just a nice idea?

    Follow up question: How many degrees is Kevin Bacon away from Michael Jordan?

    Andrew Bein: Here's a way to think about it --

    if you know 100 people, and each of those 100 people know 100 more, by the time we go out sixdegrees we'd have reached 100,000,000,000,000 people!

    This assumes no repeats -- but it still makes the odds that you are connected to the yak herder likelier than you would think.

    Leslie Walker: I'm curious about the company behind SixDegrees. How many people does it employ, and how does SixDegrees pay the bills? For example, does most of your revenue come from marketing companies who want to send e-mail to the members--or is there more money from banner advertising?

    Andrew Bein: Great question.

    There are 54 people here, most dedicated to making sure that the site and the database are in good working order.

    We are not generating a whole lot of revenue yet -- but we have financial backers who appreciate what we are trying to do.

    We generate some revenue from our banner advertising. And soon, we will be introducing a way for members to actually transact with each other.

    Falls Church, VA: Isn't your site simply a way to expand e-mail lists for marketing firms?

    Andrew Bein: No.

    We promise upfront that we will never sell our mailing list to a third party.

    Washington DC: I get email from "friends" to join this thing all the time. I think it is a bit scary to be creating this type of human relations database. What would you do if the police came to you to find someone? They'd have access to everyone who knew that person.

    I always refuse to join. It's to Big Brother for me.

    Andrew Bein: It's totally optional to join -- if you're not comfortable with it, there's no obligation to participate.

    For the two million people who have joined so far, the benefits are compelling -- the more information you provide, the more benefits you receive from the service.

    Miami FLA: How much do you charge corporations who want to send commercial email to your members?

    Andrew Bein: We do not allow this.

    If a company wants to reach our membership, we do let them include an ad on the site or be included in our Member Update.

    Our mailing list is not for sale!

    springfield, va: What if you don't have any friends and you are a total loser (lot's of those online I'm told). Isn't the initial success of the internet due to its ability to connect total strangers with one another?

    Andrew Bein: As a sixdegrees member, you can connect to others who have similar interests, hobbies, professions; who live near each other; or who have friends in common -- the idea is that no one is a "total" stranger once they are connected to the rest of the sixdegrees membership.

    Really enjoyed chatting with you today -- thanks for your great questions and your interest in sixdegrees.

    Visit us soon at!!

    Leslie Walker: Andrew, thanks for taking the time to talk with us today about this ever-shrinking world of ours. I guess my cousin in Australia will be having lunch soon with your first-grade teacher, after she gets an e-mail from my sister's best friend in college! Thanks again to all your readers for send us your questions and thoughts about networking on the Web.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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