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What is the real value of a network?


  • Fellowship

In a recent blog, my colleague Rowan Conway identified that ‘Millenials’ (according to Wikipedia I just about squeeze into this category) have long been “navigating their lives through the constant fragmentation of traditional models of family, media, technology, religion, and politics.”

This sentence struck a chord to say the least, especially when I realised I just thought of this fragmentation as basically, normal life.

But she’s right (you can read more from Rowan here). In the 21st century, our lives feel fractured and while the internet has created these vast, inclusive social networks to bring people together, the reality is that they are also myriad of individual agendas that can be both alienating and intimidating.

The RSA has very recently created its own online platform to help Fellows find each other quickly and easily (more on that here), acting in much the same way as other social networks. In the process of getting it up and running I have been thinking long and hard about its value – why do Fellows need an online network? Why do we want all our Fellows to connect, and why in fact, does our network matter at all? 

Well, to take you back many moons ago when I was fresh out of university and trying hard to figure out a plan of action, I attended a talk by Michael Norton, founder of the Directory of Social Change. He gave a rousing speech to a crowd of graduates all keen to make a difference, but above all, he was eager for us to understand that everyone starts at the beginning. You just have to get out there and start something - take the obstacles as they come and run with an idea.

Yes! That’s it, I thought. I’ll just start something and see what happens.  

Surprise, surprise, a successful social enterprise did not miraculously emerge. I was not the dynamic one man band I first thought, and my imagined glory would remain an idle daydream until I got some help. This was the moment that I first began to grasp the value of a network like the Fellowship. To get an idea off the ground you need a support structure, a community of real people – whether that is so that you can go to them and ask, ‘where on earth do I get funding from?’ Or on a bad day, have access to a someone who has overcome the encroaching sense of failure you’re currently experiencing.

So, I soon learnt that if you’re an entrepreneur, the RSA is a great place to park your car, but the reality is that most of us are not. So, is there more to the network than that?

In short, yes. 

Through numerous conversations with friends, colleagues and RSA Fellows, I've heard plenty about the pitfalls of existing social and other networks. We're bored of only meeting people in the same sector, put off by Facebook bragging, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of Twitter and intimidated by LinkedIn. We're fatigued by the individualistic nature of these networks. 

This is where I think the RSA network can step in. There is no criteria for being part of the Fellowship other than a commitment to a set of values, and given all the moral complexity of the 21st century, our values are probably the only glue that really matters.

We hope that our Fellows identify each other as people they can trust to uphold high standards of integrity. Of course, disagreements are par for the course, but what really matters is how you disagree, how you challenge your opponents and how you choose to move past differences of opinion. Respect, trust, and integrity are values that create behaviors, so networks start to matter when they bind people by behavioural standards and become more than a group of individuals looking to gain something for themselves. 

Truthfully, we’re probably not the whole way there yet, but I think that shaping our network into a real community committed to social good, is a worthy goal.

If you’re a Fellow, here are two ways you can get started now:

  1. Sign in to My RSA and upload your online Fellowship profile: it’s an opportunity to share what matters to you and explain how your particular life experience can benefit others.
  2. Find out who else is in the network : you might not be looking for anything specific at the moment, but you just might find someone or something interesting that sparks an idea.

If you have trouble with any of the above, or don’t know your password to login, you can find out more here, or feel free to get in touch with me, I’m on or 0207 451 6896.


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