When David Cameron divulged a private telephone conversation with Her Majesty the Queen as he strolled along a UN conference corridor in New York, he confirmed two interesting social network theories in one fell swoop. The first, discovered in 1954 by Elihu Katz, a researcher at the Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University, is that if you want to spread an idea, pick someone with influential social ties. Cameron chose Michael Bloomberg, ex Mayor of New York, billionaire philanthropist who is what the network science trade calls a ‘hub connector’. If the stray microphone had not made the remarks public they would have spread privately, as intended, through a global power network to convey to others political biggies that David Cameron had pulled of a coup which made someone else very powerful ‘purr’.
This kind of bragging happens naturally at conferences. They are made for sharing confidences because of the second theory: That face-to-face connection is far more powerful – and satisfying – than the online kind. The social anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, whose ‘Dunbar Number’ of 150 is widely used as the maximum number of ‘friends’ anyone can have and keep up with, did some research recently about satisfaction levels with different kinds of networking. He found that those who communicated directly, by face, voice, or eye (interestingly Skype counted too in this) people felt happier than if they just ‘spoke’ online. This is echoed by the recent Italian study of 50,000 households surveyed by Fabio Sabatini and Francesco Sarracino showing that trust from direct connection’ is at the heart of overall Wellbeing. Small wonder then that despite the cost, the expenses, the hideous purpose-built conference centres, the awful exhibition areas, the queues for ‘security rings’ people still flock to political party conferences: they actually have quite a good time. Networking first arrived fully in this country with the coffee houses of the seventeenth century, but it has come of age, ironically, in the twenty first century. The conference in particular provides a successful face-to-face corrective in a Facebook age.
Networking in Britain is thought of chiefly in American terms which are largely out of date. For the American business and political communities, ‘in person networking’ as they call it is chiefly transactional. You know, seal the deal. Hand over your card because networking is about ‘doing business’. This is bad networking, chiefly because it is incredibly short term. It’s the difference between the conference one night stand and the enduring relationship. Businesses often try and hurry up networking but the truth is – and back to trust – good networking takes time. Another kind of bad networking is the closed kind. If you’d like one more bit of sociology try this gorgeous term: ‘Structured Holes’. This phrase, coined by Ronald Burt, Professor of Sociology and Strategy at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, holds that if you don’t have networks which are porous and diverse, you get insufficient oxygen of ideas, and a worrying Groupthink. Imagine how different the sub-prime mortgage crisis might have been if the traders let any other view prevail than their fateful one.
Hence the value of conferences with all their seemingly unconnected fringe meetings: From Battersea Dogs and Cats to Nuclear Industry Association to Royal British Legion all offer the chance for some random connections and conversations in which true democracy flourishes. Back to David Cameron. How will he apologise to our Head of State for his indiscretion at the conference of world leaders? Why face-to-face. Of course.