Downton Abbey and the levelling effect of social media

"Social mobility in Britain isn’t going forwards, but backwards," says networking expert Julia Hobsbawm. "No wonder we love Downton Abbey, where Lord Crawley and his butler Carson are perfectly at ease with the establishment"

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The old boy network is alive and well. Social mobility in Britain isn’t going forwards, but backwards. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking nothing has changed in Britain for 100 years. No wonder we love Downton Abbey, where Lord Crawley and his butler Carson are perfectly at ease with the establishment, but highly suspicious of modern technology (radio and telephone).

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Today you don’t have to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth to advance in life. The modern world is a networked one. We watch, listen and read online on different networks. Talk on them. Text on them. Most of us wrinkle our noses at the word networking. But we should all network – and we have the means to do so.

In the past decade social networks have been transformative. Take the power of the parenting website Mumsnet. Each month it gets nearly the same number of page views as there are citizens in the country – more than 60 million. Every political party leader has to pass the Mumsnet test.

Or look at the case of the little boy with cancer, Ashya King, who was reunited with his parents after 150,000 signatures were collected in a day in an online petition and his family’s YouTube videos went viral.

But it’s not enough to join Facebook or Twitter and leave it at that. Face-to-face matters hugely, even in a Facebook age. You get a direct connection when you look into someone’s eyes and hear their voice. People who meet others are happier than those who simply stay online. It also fosters trust. Business and showbusiness are full of “self-made” people who haven’t gone to Eton. Simon Cowell is a classic networker.

Learning how to network today isn’t complicated, but it does require confidence. That is where the old boy network still has the edge. But you don’t need to be a rich extrovert to network. All you need are curiosity and a willingness to meet others. I believe that every single person I come across has something interesting to say. I failed academically at school and did not go to university. But during 30 years I have built up my own networks to draw on, stretching from London to New York, from politics to academia. How did I get to be the world’s first professor in networking? Yes, of course: my networks.

Building up your own networks is like building your fitness. You don’t diet and lose weight overnight, or run a marathon in a week. You painstakingly change behaviour, find out what works and what doesn’t, and keep going. Don’t worry that many think networking is, as Downton Abbey’s Lady Crawley might put it herself, “all very vulgar”. The old boy network would love you to stay in your place and not move out of it.

Networking is often dismissed as an American sales technique with a smile. But that’s just out of date. Networking is about exchange of knowledge, not money. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Today’s world isn’t gripped by the social revolution of the Downton Abbey era. Instead, it’s facing what one Canadian academic, Barry Wellman, calls “the Triple Revolution”: the internet, social media and mobile phones. They bring huge benefits, but have also made our lives terribly complicated. Which of us doesn’t feel, at least some of the time, like a car stuck in the middle of a spaghetti junction of noise, choice and overload?

This constant connection, threatening information gridlock, needs navigating. Networking is social navigation – it’s as much what to know as it is who you know. And the old boy network needs to know that! 

Julia Hobsbawm runs the networking business Editorial Intelligence — editorialintelligence.com. She is Honorary Visiting Professor in Networking at the Cass Business School at London’s City University.

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Julia Hobsbawm’s series Networking Nation is at 1:45pm on Radio 4 every day this week