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Who do you know who knows you-know-who?

By Stewart McBrideStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 20, 1980



San Francisco

If we can believe the research of social scientist Stanley Milgram, our global village has just shrunk another three sizes. He maintains that it is now possible for any of the 200 million people in the United States to reach any other American in 5.5 handshakes, relying on a chain of personal connections. Butcher, baker, candlestickmaker, are all theoretically only six phone calls from the Oval Office.

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Preposterous. Or so I thought until I recently encountered Betty Rothenberger, a San Francisco schoolteacher who is living proof of the postulate. "I had heard it should take only six phone calls to get to anyone in the world," she said, "so one day I decided to call the Queen of England. I called a friend who called a friend, and what do you know, we got to the Queen in three! And that's little old schoolteacher me."

Whether she knew it or not, Betty Rothenberger was "networking," a tribal ritual as old as the caveman, which is being frantically revived as a vital power tool for surviving the 1980s.

As bureaucracy grows increasingly rigid and unresponsive, more people are sidestepping the alphabet soup of government agencies, forms in triplicate, and traditional channels of communication. They are taking matters into their own hands and building personal networks of mutual friends, neighbors, and kindred spirits around the world, who can get things done, offer encouragement, and exchange useful bits of information. Often armed with nothing more than a fat Rolodex file, they are swapping addresses and phone numbers. They are making connections, creating "self-help grapevines," homemade "human switchboards," "invisible colleges" which can help them find answers to questions all the way from "Where can I find a baby sitter?" to "Has anyone ever started a machine tool lending library?" and "How can we prevent a nuclear holocaust?" All this over-the- back-fence ruckus comes under what sociologists call "networking."

"While most of our institutions are faltering," futurist Marilyn Ferguson writes in her new book, "The Aquarian Conspiracy," "a 20th century version of the ancient tribe or kinship system has appeared: the network, a tool for the next step in human evolution. . . . The explosion of networks in the past five years has been like a conflagration in a fireworks factory. Power is changing hands, from dying hierarchies to living networks."

According to the National Self-Help Clearinghouse at City University of New York, over 15 million Americans belong to informal information networks dealing with issues from the environment to child abuse. There are now networks of college presidents, cabdrivers, physicists, model train collectors, tuba players , and medieval historians. Be they individuals or organizations, they are intimately linked by common interests and goals.

Networkers are birds of a feather, allies who happen on each other in elevators and aisles of 747s, near produce bins, and through neighborhood newsletters. When they find one another, they swarm like bees.

Networking is nothing new. The Mafia "networks," and so do multinational corporations and Soviet dissidents. Perhaps the paradigm is the "old-boy network," an invisible but powerful and self-perpetuating web of personal connections which conducts its affairs beyond the public gaze. For centuries, its ranks have been filled by sons who have curiously followed their fathers and grandfathers to the same succession of prep schools, fraternities, law firms, and clubs. Generation after generation learned that business is best transacted on the 16th green, strings are best pulled by the water cooler.

What is revolutionary about "networking" these days is that it no longer comes packaged in gray flannel and regimental stripes. The new generation, called "alternative networks," comes in all shapes and sizes. Unlike the old networks, dedicated to profit, personal advancement, and defending the status quo, the new networks are committed to social change. You'll never get rich in an alternative network: They run on barter, volunteers, and sheer goodwill.

In Rangeley, Maine, TRANET, a global network of 500 worldwide "appropriate technologists" recently linked up a religious farming collective in Tennessee with a health care communications program in Bangladesh. The Renascence Project in Kansas City, Mo., acts as an information clearing- house for alternative businesses.