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

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.

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.

For $10, the Denver Open Network will "matchmake skills and interests" of its members through a small computer data bank. The BBC recently aired a television series, "Grapevine: The Self-Help Show," to plug viewers into existing self-help networks.

In Newton, Mass., Warmlines, a neighborhood referral network, links parents with "the perfect baby sitter." In California, the Interpersonal Support Network has created what it calls "chicken soup networks" or "network families" -- each consisting of a dozen diverse people who support other members through correspondence, conversation, and meal sharing. At Columbia University, an international group of management scientists initiated a network with an open letter that began: "A search is on for special people, and they are not on any list which can be bought."

My personal odyssey into the world of networking began late one evening while cutting cheese for a Berkeley cooperative called the Cheese Conspiracy. I had finished slicing the Brie and was rolling out a wheel of domestic Kasseri when a chap with a blond beard and British accent arrived to collect his monthly order. As his cheese was weighed and tallied, we got to chatting. I asked him what he did for a living. He told me he was a professional networker. He didn't look like a fisherman or a CBS executive, so I inquired further to see what made his net work.

Roger Pritchard is what is known in the networking world as a "weaver." He has an open mind and strong point of view with which to seine information and people. In the last several years he has interlaced 50 new networks in northern California, from the Community Memory Project to the Sonoma Network for Appropriate Technology.

No one would guess Pritchard's English background (he read sociology at Oxford University) from the insignia on his T-shirt: "Texas Annual Chit'lin Cook-off." During the Patty Hearst kidnapping he was station manager of Berkeley's KPFA, the nation's oldest community radio station. The Symbionese Liberation Army went underground at that time and delivered its taped communique exclusively through KPFA.

Shortly after Oxford, Pritchard was given a US grant from the Agency for International Development to build an "information network" between first- and third-world public policy planners.

Building a new network, he says, involves two stages:

"The first stage is sometimes called 'mapping,'" discovering who's out there, which means you need names and addresses. Second is discovering what kinds of information they want and at what level.

Before parting company, Pritchard hands me a copy of the Bulletin of the International Network for Social Network Analysis. This unit, centered at the University of Toronto, describes itself as a "network of network analysts." Its directory lists several hundred sociologists, anthropologists, and other academicians from Brazil to Finland who are investigating with mathematical precision such subjects as: "friendship networks among Irish immigrants in Sydney [Australia]," "networks of Vietnam era men," and "social networks of Compadrazo in Tlaxcala, Mexico."

The scholars call themselves "social network analysts," the bulletin announces, "because of the possibility of cognitive confusion with the Chomskyites, Levi-Straussians, Radcliffe-Brownians (and perhaps even Parsonians)."

Virginia Hine, an anthropologist from the University of Miami, and Luther Gerlach of the University of Minnesota, who have studied social protest movements since the '60s, christened the new alternative networks SPINs ("segmented polycephalous integrated networks").

What does a SPIN look like? Would you recognize one at the next board meeting? Probably not, Ms. Hine says. While the organizational chart of a traditional institution looks like a pyramid of box cars, the SPIN resembles, she says, "a badly knotted fish net with a multitude of nodes and cells of varying sizes, each linked to all the others either directly or indirectly."

Networks are leaderless; the heart and center is everywhere in a decentralized interchangeable mesh of "nodes" (where people come for information) and "links" (people who plug others into information sources). Networks are democratic: All nodes and links are created equal. There are no model networks, no blueprints from Central Casting to follow. Content and style are as different as the networkers. Network information travels at high speeds, but on haphazard and serendipitous highways. News of a successful experiment spreads like warm sunshine on these seedbeds of optimism.

Networks are flexible and coalesce around any purpose, from political to culinary. They are organizational Lone Rangers, here-today-gone-tomorrow ad hoc rescue squads that mold to the needs and styles of their members and then self-destruct when no longer useful. They are not static, cannot be held, rotated, and scrutinized like formaldehyde butterflies on stickpins. Networking is not a science but an art form.

And now the bad news: Networks have their limitations. Because they jell and disintegrate according to the immediate needs of their participants, networks are hard to sustain over long periods. They lack the continuity and longevity of more traditional institutions. If you want to build a solar greenhouse for the neighborhood, you would do better to form a nonprofit corporation than a network. You might then be connected to the larger solar network, but locally you would be an organization. You can't use a network to pay pensions, build highways, fight wars.

Networks are also vulnerable. They can ossify into cliques, become closed to new points of view. They can grow, overextend themselves, and implode. Members pipe-dream of four-color newsletters, and soon what started out as a network run on a shoestring has become 25 dues-paying members with an executive board and government grants.

The term "network" is best used as a verb and not a noun. Explains one veteran networker: "It is what you do, not what you are." While many organizations hoard scarce information, networks are cooperative and generally noncompetitive. Nevertheless they have their own unspoken code of ethics: The size of the portal through which you give to the network is the size through which you receive. As Roger Pritchard put it: "Networking is building mutual trust through gift exchange. Good information is a wonderful gift."

Some networks are difficult to gain access to, but generally they are not cliquish. They are simply very careful about whom they invite into their "invisible homes." On several occasions, network members interviewed me for upwards of an hour before agreeing to answer my questions about their activities. They drive a hard bargain: "If we don't trust you after our initial conversation, you can forget the interview." Once admitted to the network, however, I became a trusted member who could call anyone else in the network and expect to be openly embraced. It is a trust no networker, or reporter, accepts lightly.

Slowly my own network was building. Pritchard had "linked" me to a conference on "New Age networking." It was to be held at something called the Holistic Life University, a single Victorian house in San Francisco's Inner Sunset neighborhood, strewn with shops peddling organic pears and tofu sandwiches. That particular Saturday morning, two dozen "networkers" had checked their sandals at the "university's" door and were seated cross-legged on a circle of pillows, beneath a padded ceiling that had the look of a giant quilted egg carton.

Pritchard had warned me that no two networks are alike, and indeed the discussion resembled that knotted fish net Virginia Hine has written about. There was no agenda, no discussion leader. Conversation ricocheted around the circle, disjointed, relaxed, warm, often enlightening.

During the lunch break, I picnicked with a bright-eyed schoolteacher-turned-free-lance writer who seemed to think networking was the greatest thing to hit the women's movement since suffrage. "Men have had clubs and business associations for hundreds of years," Carolyn Shaffer said. "Women have been housebound with networks restricted to bridge clubs and the PTA. Now we're exploring new ones.

"There's a group in San Francisco called Women in Business, which is touted as the parallel to the old-boy network. They call it the 'new-girl network.' Women press business cards into each other's hands and promise to send business in each other's direction. Some of these groups have newsletters, monthly meetings, and some have very steep entrance fees. They don't want just anybody ripping off their ideas."

Ms. Shaffer's own introduction to networking came several years ago when she quit her high school teaching job and with a friend began "brainstorming for the ideal job." They discovered a network called the Zephyros Educational Exchange, which invited people to "work parties" that included softball and potluck casseroles along with stuffing envelopes and licking labels. "They were so much fun that people asked to work," Ms. Shaffer recalls.

"The experience with that network taught me I can go to any town in America, check out the bookstores, natural food stores, cafe bulletin boards, and plug into the local "new age' network in that community," she says, peeling a banana. Since that time she has connected with a variety of networks: Community Grapevine, a newsletter of listings and articles on "collective living situations"; Women's Choice, a network of women who exchange personal experiences (in areas ranging from creativity to business) through a newsletter; and the Feminist Writers' Guild, a monthly salon of writers in the Bay Area who read and critique one another's work, as well as exchange advice on making contacts and marketing their writing.

For the last year Jessica Lipnack and her husband, Jeffrey Stamps, have been writing a book on networking, called "Another America: Networking in the 1980s." The book, which will be published next year, is a result of the couple's own "networking" of hundreds and hundreds of Americans. The volume will include profiles of networks in a broad variety of areas (health, community, education, communication, ecology, energy, politics, religion), a directory of 1,000 existing networks in the United States, and a do-it-yourself section.

"The big question is always, 'How do I build my own network,'" Jessica Lipnack says in a telephone interview from her home in West Newton, Mass. "Sometimes it happens naturally. You suddenly realize you've been in touch with people around a certain issue and have become a network."

To those, however, weaving a network from scratch, she offers the following pointers:

1. Pick up the telephone.m "Call somebody and ask for suggestions. Probably whatever you want to 'network' about, someone is already doing 10 times better than you've ever dreamed. Stay on the phone until you find your answer."

2. Be extremely humble.m "Take people's advice. Don't call up sounding like a know-it-all. No one will want to tell you anything. Learn from others' experience; then you become a trusted channel of communication. [Futurist] Hazel Henderson says you can tell whether someone is sincere or not the moment you pick up the phone and hear his voice."

3. Buy some post cards.m "You don't have to write a whole letter. You can write 25 post cards in three hours. Make questions brief. If you're writing a letter, send a self-addressed envelope for a quicker response."

4. Buy a roll of stamps.m "I know it sounds stupid, but one of the things that hang people up is they write letters and never mail them."

5. You don't need money.m "There isn't a network in the country that has any money. You only need enough cash to pay your phone bill. Maybe that will mean no long-distance calls. Write on scraps of paper or recycled envelopes."

6. Be flexible.m "Let ideas evolve. You might start off to build a solar greenhouse and find out what you really needed was to start a food co-op. You might begin talking about global transformation and find your immediate need is getting a stoplight at the street corner."

7. Forget ideology.m "Get rid of your dogma and belief that there is onem right way. Instead of subscribing to the words of Marx, Jefferson, or anybody, be open to different people."

8. Be available.m "Once you put out the word that you are interested in something, people will respond. . . . You may get some nutty phone calls, but be prepared to deal with them. People who like to network love to network. You are tapping into their hearts and souls. If you don't want to receive calls at a certain time, put that in your letter. Establish an address and phone number and stick with it. If you're starting a network, don't move the office every two weeks. If you move often, get a post office box."

9. Think small.m "Very small. If you want to start a newsletter, start on two sides of a piece of paper. If you start too big, it will cost money, then you'll need membership, and have to apply for grants. You'll begin writing proposals, and before long you're not networking at all."

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