Facebook dominates the online Social Network market, boasting 500 million members. This is a network so large it’s been compared to a country. Though marketers and employers are divided in opinion about its value as a ‘support’ network, they agree that it allows you to randomly call upon a member, or ‘a friend’ that may be of use to you; but what about real social, cultural or professional networks? Before the growth of online groups, how useful were real networks for us, and are they still working?
Of course there are many virtual networks, Linked In, Orkut and MySpace thrive in various parts of the world. But beyond these virtual networks, which we’ll take to be a recent development, it’s the real-life networks which are perhaps more significant. In the film, "The Social Network" Mark Zuckerburg’s motivation for starting something new is chiefly to get the attention of ‘the groups’. We’ll take this to mean that it is the groups who can give you the right leads in life, either to better social prospects or employment opportunities; but other than fraternities and secret societies, what other groups exist and how can they help us?
Indians have a natural habit of creating groups; we need only look at the caste system: An outdated, yet meticulous, classification system I suspect most people are not proud of. Beyond this, we’re regionally diverse, categorised by language, jobs and even NRI status. It would be a mistake not to think that these divisions are prevalent in our culture. The trick is to get the balance right, and not succumb to a fear ‘belonging’ through the labels given to you. A Gujarati Network for example, may of course have its benefits for many of its members - but that would depend on what was being offered. Let’s assume I’m a Gujarati student, but I’m only really interested in Bhangra, would I need to move to the Punjabi Society? Maybe even the Indian society, and would this fit with the ideals of those running it? I’d worry about needing to talk politics, when I’d rather just focus on Malkit Singh. However, I won’t really know what’s being offered until I fully immerse myself. You never know, I may find some fellow Bhangra enthusiasts, or maybe I’ll hate it and I’ll decide to form my own network. The emphasis will always be on the personal relationship I strike up with other members, which may or may not be fruitful.
I think back to Bollywood films of the 80s and 90s and consider how the villains are typically rich, well connected and many, whereas the ‘goodies’ are poorer and fewer. Of course Bollywood is working on the side of the humble everyman - yet it’s also suggesting that those who have done well for themselves have been able to benefit from a large group of friends. Not everyone will be a tycoon, with access to hundreds of staff and a mafia phonebook - but these characters do loosely reflect a generation of Indians, who through business and networking - have been able to create a mutually beneficial society. Some argue that this leads to corruption, but in such a large society, it is inevitable that allegiances are going to be made that protect the status-quo.
Away from dushum dushum mafia types and ‘daddy’s friends’, in a realer world (though not by a long-stretch) the UK Prime Minister David Cameron, recently announced his aims to drive ‘A Big Society’ - the emphasis being that as we work out of the recession, we should foster communities that help each other. As Indians are supposedly good at being ‘extended’ this simply means taking our communal relationship a little further. It seems we’re ready to leap to each other’s aid when a marriage connection needs to be made - but the question is can this be implemented if one needs a job, money or advice? Most would agree that this is where certain cultural societies come into best effect. Also, the evidence that large percentages of jobs are internally sourced through connections would seem to suggest so.
In this spirit, societies aiming to forge connections of all sorts have sprung up around London and other NRI hot-spots, all aiming to provide the right level of support for one another. Some, have of course aimed to be exclusive in their approach, others have been created out of necessity in response to the cultural climate, like Southall Black Sisters for example. In a more professional capacity, some networks have been quite successful in their approach. Let’s look at City Hindu Network in London for example. This network has been running for several years, and part of what makes it successful, aside from the professional networking and mentoring, is the fact that it offers something additional to what you’d ordinarily find in London. I can see any cultural network doing particularly well in a NRI community, allowing members to come together in an otherwise ‘new’ environment. Naturally this idea won’t apply to everyone, but it probably leads to the success of such groups. In certain respects, groups like this almost mirror the development of Jewish and Hispanic communities in New York over the last century or so. In these instances business has been a big incentive, but it’s also paved the way for social introduction and integration as well.
In the coming years, it will be no surprise to see more ethnic groups create their own networks, but whether our needs or demands for cultural based groups/networks/societies will still exist remains another question. Instead, I foresee the development of interest based sub-divisions - and with the growth of the digital arena, we’ll be able to implement these connections with people from further reaches of the globe who aren’t necessarily of the same ethnic group (as many of us already do). The ‘social’ aspect of this relationship, however, is the most crucial factor. Having a membership to a specific interest group isn’t automatically going to lead to bountiful connections or prospects unless those involved are actually adequately ‘social’.