The Palace of Versailles was built, in essence, to facilitate networking. It’s a big building designed to contain Louis XIV, his flunkeys and any French noble who wanted to get anywhere. If the “etat” was indeed “moi”, then getting close to and remaining close to the Sun King was, in some cases quite literally, a matter of life and death.
This had consequences. My favourite consequence is that the drains at Versailles were terrible and it was always short of water. Dashing courtiers were in the habit of relieving themselves in corridors and the place stank. Think of it as a somewhat run down and frankly weird hotel, and you’re getting close to 18th Century reality.
There was quite a lot of sex too. Quite understandable. A remote rural location, bored people, lots of booze, not much else to do.
The trickier bit was all the court etiquette. Books were written on the precise degree of hat raising and bowing between the stratified layers of nobility inhabiting the vast pile.
Two facts stick in my mind. The first is that one could not be so vulgar as to knock on a door with the old knuckles.
Nope, that would never do.
One had to quietly scratch the door post to attract the attention of those on the other side. Gentlemen of the court displayed their status by growing one fingernail out to facilitate said scratching.
The second concerns the actual opening of doors. If you walk around Versailles (and you should), you’ll notice that many of the doors are double doors. Footmen only opened both doors for actual royalty, King/Queen, Prince/esses of the Royal Blood. Everyone else, single side opening only.
So, networking then. Well, Versailles was a pretty extreme example of a small group of people networking with each other. In the long run, it was quite spectacularly unsustainable. One hundred years after Louis XIV moved in his successor was rather brusquely moved out.
Networking is, of course, a valid and deeply studied “thing”. It is a branch of social science and mathematics with many PhD’s awarded for its study. In layman’s terms, I have to tell you that I know very little about networking. My main advantage in writing this piece, however, is that not many other people think about the realities of networking very much, so I have a chance of getting away with it.
It is undoubtedly the case that to do business and earn a living you need to get to know people and they need to get to know you. Pre the internet, we invented all sorts of clubs and societies sometimes complete with ties and handshakes to get to know people. We might not have built palaces, but we certainly put up meeting halls.
Once the internet happened, and especially once we’d worked out how to do social media, it seemed to everyone that the networking lark was a walk in the park. Why, you could do it clad only in your pants while watching TV and drinking beer.
In the early days, I joined the throng and wanted to network with everyone online. Why wouldn’t I? Not long after the invention of LinkedIn, I found myself connected to most of the then French political establishment. Somebody must have sent them on a course, and they sent connection requests to everyone. Mind you there were fewer than 100,000 people on LinkedIn then so there weren’t actually that many people with whom you could connect. They’ve all since disconnected, even dear old Alain Juppé.
Ultimately the current fashion for gigantic social media networks isn’t of any use to most of us at all. Okay, if you want to make money from being on YouTube or flogging downloads of yourself singing in Korean, then lots of eyeballs are what you want. However, for most of us, that isn’t our business model. 30,000 LinkedIn connections may game the algorithm, but it probably isn’t going to make you a living.
If there is a secret (the usual secret is that there is no secret), then it is that as humans our networks are most effective when they are human-sized, or we can make people believe that they are human-sized. And, let’s be honest here, you’re not going to do that by building an extensive but random list of contacts whom you spam with other people’s motivational quotes every couple of hours, that’s just the 21st Century version of having one long fingernail.