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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Old Boy (and Girl) Networks Still Make the World Go Round

Old Boy (and Girl) Networks Still Make the World Go Round

  • Freemasons Hall, London:  One British Network - Arpingstone

Computer and social networks are now integral to daily lives, but “who knows who” still opens doors, influences, controls, decides and shapes business.

Networks in business, politics, the social world did not arrive with the internet age. The old, historical, personal and informal networks are what still create jobs, wealth, governments. From royal families and medieval knights & trades guilds, like-minded men in early politics and political clubs, certain schools, the military, the church, the law, the criminal fraternity, select businesses, private clubs & organisations, older universities, the world is an overlapping matrix of networks. These are also known as nods & winks, understandings, accommodations, handshakes, relatives, mafias, cartels, brother/sisterhoods, hierarchies, alliances and secrets.

Networks Serve Small Elites

In Britain, a particular expression, the “Old Boy Network”, evolved, understood implicitly by people in a society where everybody knew his/her place. “Stiff upper lip”, “that’s not cricket”, “fair play” were similarly unspoken, but authoritative phrases. Loyalties and allegiances run deep.

The class system was evident by opposites: upper class v lower, with the middle class variously leaning down or up. It was “toffs versus oiks” (from toffs’ perspective); chauffeur versus public transport; sophisticated versus humdrum; wealth versus poverty; health versus disease; private versus state education; ownership versus shop-floor, and Conservative versus Labour/trade union politics. In the past 30 years, such certainties have been blurred, if not swept away altogether.

Networks that serve small elites are not unique to Britain, all countries have them, from democracies to dictatorships. In the 2008 US Presidential elections, Republican candidate John McCain, reported on the free dictionary said: “The word’s going out, my friends: The old-boy network, the pork-barrelers, the earmarkers, the word is, `Change is coming'”.

Potent Membership Signals

In his 1983 UK published book, Networks, Tim Heald identified physical signs confirming networks of privilege, social elites. School, legal chambers, regimental or select organisations use men’s ties to denote membership and send what Heald called, “potent signals” that the wearers are party to special privileges, like a common memory/experience. School ties are usually worn by former, or ‘old boys’, often called alumni.

Heald said that with so many different layers of tie colouring, patterning and motif emblazoning, “no one except Britain has turned the necktie into such a precise form of communication… regarded by outsiders as unfathomably obscure.” Bowler hats once served much the same purpose in the City of London, banking quarter.

Suits and striped blazers, hunting pinks, jackets and top hats or boaters effectively communicate meaning, provided the observer understands the significance of the sartorial statement. Lapel badges of Rotary Clubs, societies and elite groupings are still popular. Indeed, the badge as a significant reminder of membership was abused by the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s and 40s, forcing Jewish people to wear the Star of David as if it were a badge of dishonour.

The Freemasons, Ultimate Networks

The Freemasons, or just masons, are probably the largest secret fraternity in the world, though they keep few secrets nowadays. Masonry was born in obscure 16th century beginnings, declaring belief in a Supreme Being and using allegorical imagery of King Soloman’s temple built in Old Testament times, with what they style, “the metaphors of stonemasons’ tools to convey a system of morality veiled in allegory.”

There may be as many as 5 million masons worldwide, with 2m in the USA and about half a million in the UK. They are self-governing under Grand Lodges, and although exclusively male, they raise large sums for charities besides their symbolic activities. Female lodges may be created eventually.

Masons wear dark suits, white shirts, black ties and specially-made aprons, in the style of ancient master craftsmen. They share handshakes and other signals to communicate to each other, sometimes requiring, sometimes offering particular help.

Periodically, the media concerns itself about masons in public office, the judiciary, the police and the media itself exerting undue influence and helping fellow masons to the detriment of others. There are organisations opposed to them, sometimes on the grounds that membership of a partly secret movement that uses codes & symbols and is very old, must be incompatible with public life.

One such, Masonicinfo.com keeps a comprehensive list of famous masons, and those famous people who are not, like Presidents Bill Clinton, both George Bushes and Barack Obama. Both Presidents Roosevelts and Harry S Truman were masons. It also states that US masonic membership is not secret, unlike the UK equivalent.

Modern Networking Is Online

June 2010, The Daily Telegraph reported Dr Ivan Misner of Business Network International, the world’s largest organisation in business networking and referral marketing, speaking out at “the premature solicitation for work on social media websites by people who hunt for contacts rather than cultivate relationships”.

His concern reflects a feeling that only networks built on trust, lengthy relationships and full understanding of cultural, historical and psychological angles, can lead to genuine business partnerships. Social media sites, he did admit, can be as effective at drumming up business as chambers of commerce or Rotary Clubs.

In other words, people don’t need the right tie, suit or handshake to trade on the web. But they still have to network.

First published on Suite 101, 21st June 2010.

Photo: Freemasons Hall, London: One British Network – Arpingstone

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