A lot of folks, from best selling authors to us social media plebeians, use the word “tribe” when talking about our online communities. I have been thinking about what significance and implications come with this word for some time now. How is it different from “group” or “community?”
I started my search by reaching back to my own Native American heritage, to unpack my own personal definition of “tribe.” The indigenous peoples of North America know a lot about community, identity and loyalty. Native American identities have survived hundreds of years of assault on their tribal existence, yet continue to persist and even thrive.
What can emerging digital tribes learn about building strong and fulfilling communities from Native Americans? I have been working on this topic for several months, pulling from anthropology, social media and gaming communities case studies as well as from my own experiences, particularly as a Native American. Each of the 12 items below are rather large topics. I am working my way through this blog series with more detailed exploration on these items. If you are interested in more detail, you can jump back to the beginning of the series: DgtlTribe
Here I provide a summary of my Digital Tribe findings. These are the 12 most important things to be mindful of in order to create a community with the tribal strengths of:
- resource pooling
- long standing commitment
(I have grouped the 12 in to subgroups, mostly because I have chronic-bulletization syndrom-disorder, which forces me to put everything possible in bullet format, ideally in groups of three. I am not seeking treatment.)
Think of something nameless… Couldn’t do it, could you? Naming something calls it into existence in our consciousness. It creates definition. Naming is a powerful phenomenon in any culture. We name groups, events and people. Many Native American tribes have a tradition of naming people as a rite of passage, to mark transition, identify familial relations and status within the community.
1. Name your group and I don’t mean the “Quilter’s Circle of Springfield, South.” It will work if you are in a pinch, but it is better to give yourselves a name that can bear the weight of identity, something unique that defines the “us” as opposed to the “them.” Think of your favorite brands. Think about the feel of these brand names: Nike, Sanuk, Apple vs. Home Shopping Network, IBM, General Motors.
2. Name your events and I don’t mean the Quarterly Meeting, Northern Chicago Webdesigner’s tweet up. Bleh! What does Red Earth Festival convey to you? Better yet, what does it convey to the folks who attend every year? What about calling your event: Ghom? That is Klingon for “to meet.” I looked it up. This is fun, people!
3. Name your people: In modern, western society we give people titles, this is an echo of name giving, but doesn’t carry near the power of identification. Nobody actually addresses me as Director of eMarketing. Besides, those titles can and do change frequently. It is a little different in the military, but there, hierarchy is at the core of fulfilling the military’s mission.
Our avatars are great examples of the link between naming and identity, particularly in online gaming groups. (Check out this interesting post from Adriel Nation on this subject.) But imagine the impact of being given a name within a community, based on the role and accomplishments in that community. This creates another level, a deeper level, of self-identification with a group.
I learned to speak German fluently in my teens. For me, having an alternate language for expression opened up the impact of language as an influential frame around my perception. Language itself is a part of our culture interaction with one another and a core to our culture. While it is unlikely a group will develop a language from whole cloth (Klingon is a great exception!), there are options available to groups.
4. Specialty language or insider languages develop naturally over time. This is obvious in various disciplines (math, science, medicine, engineering, post-modern literary theory, etc. ). You can barely understand folks speaking within a highly specialized discipline. But it actually occurs within any group, given enough time. Pay attention to your group’s use of code language and find ways to support it, like creating a dictionary of terms, or using it in your naming practice (above.)
5. Symbolic language is also very powerful in the digital space. Interesting examples are the heraldic practices of Europe (see image above) and today’s emoticons. Logos essentially create a mini-symbolic language and name around a brand. Does your group have any symbols in practice?
Culture is a complex topic, but for the purposes of online communities, I wanted to focus on two aspects that can and should be addressed in digital groups.
6. Rituals are my favorite tool! This is any practice we do regularly and consistently the same. An anthropologist blew my mind when he told me the ritual comes first and the meaning comes afterward. So a group ritual can be anything! Have fun with this. Support what sticks and be consistent!
7. Value systems is a big, tough topic. Most important is to know that your group values are evident in the behaviors your group practices. It is great to document these, review them regularly and celebrate them.
Above all, people need to know where they stand. Not knowing the rules of engagement, how decisions get made and your own role in that is one of the worst stresses a person can experience.
8. Consensus governance: Decision making in most tribal cultures is based on consensus, not voting. This is not democratic or corporate style governance. If a decision needs to be made or a project undertaken, you have to get the influencers in the group behind it. They in turn influence their subgroup. This is highly participatory governing and…
9. Merit based: …it is based on the philosophy that people and ideas rise to the top based predominantly on merit. Social media appears to inherently support merit based activities. Merit based is not “one person, one vote,” it looks at the value of an idea and a person’s contribution and assigns influence accordingly.
10. Hierarchy: Just as we love ritual, we are hierarchical animals, by nature. There is some kind of hierarchy in your organization. Acknowledge it. Celebrate it, even! As long as you practice consensus governance based on merit, the hierarchy will feel natural, empowering and provide stability and efficiency. Native American tribes and nations are groupings of smaller clans or bands who had their own leadership and culture. As your community grows beyond 150 to 200 people, look for those subgroups. Get clarity on the hierarchical relationships in those bands and how they fit in the larger group.
11. Diversity: As is the case in neighborhoods and countries, tribes are diverse. There will be folks who don’t agree, who refuse to fall in line with behavior standards. Do you want a closed community of like-minded people or an open community that incorporates or tolerates variation, even disruption? Change is inevitable if you are aiming for a long surviving community. The naysayers often carry the seeds of a successful future, but they can also create tension and division. Reach back to your values to understand where your community draws the line.
12. Don’t Force it: You can force culture, identity, values to some extent, but we tend to refer to those instances as totalitarian regimes and they rarely result in successful, multigenerational communities. This is about being mindful of these opportunities and forces at work in your group. It is about being intentional in strengthening and deepening the community connection.
Whew! You made it to the end! If you got this far, I would appreciate it if you would take a moment to leave a comment. Do you see any of these tribal attributes at work in your online community? What can you do to better support it? Have you seen groups fall apart because of a struggle with one of these dynamics? I would love to hear from you!
I am absolutely addicted to @StephenCaggiano’s daily #UsGuys #NightShift Clock in on video on Twitter. Check it out below. It will only take few seconds.
You might not be so impressed. #UsGuys doesn’t care! It is a daily group ritual and you are not in this group. People in the #UsGuys community wait for it nightly and Stephen delivers consistently. Sometimes others join in either by tweeting a ‘clock in’ or making their own video, but if Stephen skipped a night, many of us would feel like the whole night was off, just not the same.
What is going on here? Why should you care?
Group rituals are the cement of human community. Are you interested in creating or participating in a cohesive, sticky community that has longevity, loyalty, dedicated resource pooling and a strong sense of identity? Here you go! Ritual practice generates that hard to pinpoint, fundamental attachment to a group of people that will transcend all kinds of adversity!
And look at how easy it is. What Stephen does is not complex, but it is consistent. Variation in the videos is commented upon. Was Stephen at home? Out on the town? Was he in a t-shirt, dress clothes, shirtless? Was his hair a mess, is he sick? Recognizing variation creates insider status. Commenting on those differences illustrates #UsGuys culturally versant status.
This reminds me of the odd South by South West Interactive Conference ritual I stumbled upon. At 3 am every year at SXSW in a hotel lobby, this happens:
No one could tell me what it was about, but the large crowd was dedicated to the experience. “Stick around, you won’t be sorry,” I was told.
Quick Bit of Context:
This is a blog series that addresses how to strengthen our digitally based communities by leveraging the wisdom found in Native American tribal experiences and beyond. This post marks the halfway point in the journey through the Three Pillars; three tool types you can use to increase identification, loyalty and resource pooling for the longevity and cohesion of the group.
A Step Back:
Pillar 2 is Culture / Ritual. Here I am focused on my absolute favorite tribal aspect, Ritual. The term ‘ritual’ often carries a religious connotation, but it is really any sequence of acts done in a set manner, repetitively. Pledging allegiance to the flag before the ball game is a ritual ceremony. We have personal rituals, family rituals, community, religious and cultural rituals. My own Native American tribe gathers multiple times a year for late night stomp dancing around a fire that has burned without interruption for untold years. It is documented that the fire survived the Trail of Tears in the 1800’s until today, under 24 hour supervision. Powerful stuff, no?
Last year, I was surprised to hear from an anthropologist that rituals often develop meaning after they are established. The repetitive action happens first, then comes meaning. We have so many rituals we practice without being intentional about the meaning, yet we wouldn’t skip them without great gnashing of teeth! I would be delighted to hear about rituals you feel strongly about!
So let’s get to some more examples:
My cousin has been in a guild of between 50 and 80 people on EverQuest for more than a decade. Their guild is extremely dedicated.
Some of their ritual practices:
- They have met on the same nights every week for more than a decade. Some nights are raid nights, others are planning nights.
- At the end of a raid they “buffer” each other which means they give each other various forms of strength for the next log in.
- When someone in the guild has a birthday, they “kill something big,” to quote my cousin.
The people in this guild have been at the hospital for major medical issues before family members showed up. Legal and engineering talents in the guild have offered support to other members when they were in need, free of charge. This guild inspires enormous resource pooling and commitment that translates into “the real world.”
2. The TwitterChat phenomenon
TwitterChats are everywhere on Twitter. I have noticed a common practice on many of the chats. There is a good 7 minutes of greetings and welcomes before the chat gets started. This is the opposite of every meeting ‘How To Guide’ you will find: ‘Get to the point, rock through the agenda, make the meeting relevant and a good use of people’s time.’ But on TwitterChats we like to work the room before we settle in for the agenda. If you cut that short, your chat will feel bumpy and wrong somehow. Dedicating those first several minutes to welcome chatter is culturally versant.
In fact, TwitterChats have a ritual aspect by virtue of the weekly rhythm. People organize their day around a chat time.
I also love how folks do imitations of real world physical gestures in TwitterChat greetings, like “*waving* across the room” to bring another level of real world meet-n-greet to the experience.
3. There are all kinds of rituals on social media communities:
- #FF (whether you like it or not)
- Regular giveaway days, like Luxor Casino’s Facebook Fridays
Ritual will cement a community feeling like nothing else. Ritual practice is powerful and fun. Things to remember:
- You can’t force culture and you can’t force ritual. Try something. If it doesn’t take, it wasn’t meant to be.
- Keep it simple and extremely consistent
- Allow others to participate, but remember, anything that is reliant on the participation of the group, while the most powerful, is the hardest to get off the ground.
Please share the rituals you have encountered on and offline! Digital tribes are still in their infancy. We are learning together.
What do Italians, Harley riders and Trekkies have in common?
They each have their own multigenerational sense of group culture.
Culture is the most powerful tool for developing longevity and loyalty within a tribe. Looking out across the digital community landscape, it also appears to be the most underestimated. Marketing professionals have long tried to harness some of the power of culture through branding as expressions of values, experience and identity. But we don’t confuse brand with culture. Well, most of us don’t.
Culture is tough for us to nail down, yet we know it when we experience it. We get upset when it changes or is threatened. How do you define culture?
Here are two dictionary definitions of culture from http://Dictionary.reference.com to kick us off:
1. The behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: the youth culture; the drug culture.
2. Anthropology. The sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.
The origin of the word is interesting too:
Mid-15c., “the tilling of land,” from L. cultura, from pp. stem of colere “tend, guard, cultivate, till” (see cult). The figurative sense of “cultivation through education” is first attested c. 1500. Meaning “the intellectual side of civilization” is from 1805; that of “collective customs and achievements of a people” is from 1867.
Looking at these references, I see three things:
1. Repetitive behavior shared across a group of people and across generations
2. Common beliefs
3. An origin referring to caring for, guarding, cultivating
Repetitive behaviors, ways of doing things, jumps out at me. Last year, an anthropologist told me that despite our perception, repetition develops first and meaning is assigned afterward. Anyone who is superstitious can attest to this! It brought to mind a cultural struggle in my own household:
My husband is German. They open Christmas gifts on Christmas Eve. We opened gifts Christmas morning. It took seven years and 3 kids to create a compromise on this issue. Of course, when gifts are opened has no bearing on the meaning of the Christmas ritual, but changing “the way” we do it was unexpectedly difficult for both of us. It felt like changing how you did it could change the ritual beyond identification.
What rituals have meaning for you? Do you have any that have developed in your family, friends or region that might surprise us?
So let me know if this makes sense:
If repetitive behaviors become rituals, are cultivated and shared with others and develop deeper, common meaning; culture no longer seems so amorphous and challenging as a goal for our online communities.
You may ask, are we really talking about developing culture around a common interest or a product?
Multigenerational interests gone cultural:
- Social gaming
Multigenerational products gone cultural:
- Harley Davidson comes to mind as a multigenerational product/culture.
- I also want to lump DeadHeads in this bucket with the pursuit of Grateful Dead music and concerts as representation and expression of a lifestyle.
Emerging product cultures:
- Sanuk, with their leverage of surf culture
In the coming posts I will talk about specific cultural examples and opportunities available in digital groups and the approach needed to “cultivate” their emergence.
I would love to hear about examples you have experienced in your online travels!
I am starting a series of blog posts on what the Native American experience can teach us about building strong tribes in a Digital space. I am very grateful to all who have explored this idea with me, in particular my SXSW Interactive co-panelists, Lou Ordorica and Dr. Circe Sturm, and want to expand this discussion in a public dialogue.
The genesis of the idea came from two observations:
- The term tribe is quite liberally applied to online groups and communities. Two books: Bernard Cova’s Consumer Tribes and Seth Godin’s Tribes, also apply the term more broadly to people sharing a common interest, identity or objective. The term tribe doesn’t really have a solid definition in these contexts, but definitely implies that people are gathering online in search of stronger connections and community.
- Native American tribes have survived centuries of attacks & challenges as well as the single largest paradigm shift in their collective existence with the arrival of Europeans. In addition to attacks on Native resources,culture,beliefsystems,familial ties (see Indian Termination Policy) and, of course, their very lives*, Native American tribes had to learn how to navigate and in many cases adopt the European/Christian/Nation-State world view.
Those thoughts led me to these two questions:
- Many Native American tribes, mine included, are enjoying a kind of renaissance in pride and commitment to culture. What makes up these Native American experiences and enables the tribes to continue and even flourish after such long and varied challenges?
- Can digital communities achieve the same kind of strong bonds, loyalty and sense of identity through the realization of the practices of indigenous peoples?
My research so far leads me to believe that online communities that are developing strong bonds, identity and organizations are employing techniques also found in Native American tribes. I do believe that the exploration of the Native American tribal experience can lead “neo-tribes” to the kind of loyalty, longevity and rich personal commitment that is experienced by indigenous peoples.
The subsequent posts will explore the role of leadership, mission, language, culture and governance as well as platforms in the development of tribes in online communities. I look forward to your feedback, examples, critique and additions!
*I recently read Little House on the Prairie to my daughters and skipped the repeated line “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
To eat: Wisinin (Algonquin), Impa (Chickasaw), Turhurak a kawats (Pawnee for Let’s eat!), Wah-Num-Bra (Osage), Mitsoh (Cree)
It was inevitable, while researching my SXSW panel, that food would come up! The culture of food is so universal and fundamental to us humans, I wanted to take a moment to dig into it.
My Native American tribe has a ceremonial food. It is served at every gathering and is known to have healing powers. Most indigenous people have traditional foods for ceremonies and healing. But, really what culture doesn’t? The most common cultural item we share with one another is food.
Why is this relevant to community in Digital Times? I believe we are tethered deeply to one another through our traditions and no tradition is more fundamental than breaking bread together. Let’s stop and consider our national holidays to crystallize this. When you think of holidays we Americans share nationally, you think of Independence Day (grilling, BBQ), Thanksgiving (an entire holiday about a meal), Christmas (pumpkin pie, ham, turkey and so on), Halloween (candy). Now think about MLKjr Day, Labor Day, President’s day. What do we all share culturally on those days? There are parades and memorials, and some attend those, but many just use it as a day off for a long weekend somewhere with the kids. These are pretty cultureless holidays. Now, if there was a food associated with MKLjr Day or President’s day, I bet we would celebrate them much differently.
My husband and I have a cuisine for our own marital traditions. We eat Indian food for anniversaries, birthdays and other celebrations. It started as an opportunity to reflect on our brief visit to the Himalayas, but has grown into the thread that holds a patchwork of lovely moments together. We have a bond over lentils!
So, I am thinking that your digital tribe is missing out if there is no food/drink tradition. How does it translate from “In Real Life” (IRL) to digital communities? See the suggestions below, but remember culture comes from tradition. Tradition is what we do ritualistically, repetitively. Whatever your community does, the evidence of a community food culture is in the repetition.
1. Virtual food/drink sharing:
This medium should happen very regularly. It can be based on time of day or week (morning coffee, Friday happy hour,…). This is a low level of effort, but shows awareness and thoughtfulness for others and can be an icebreaker for folks to get to know one another.
a. This past week I noticed @prosperitygal tweeting bowls of steaming Texas chili to friends. It wasn’t just “@so-and-so Here is a bowl of chili.” She is a Texan so it was personal food that she tweeted with flair. According to her stream, these bowls were steaming hot. I could see the deep red color of a good Texas chili and wondered if there was cheese or chopped onions. I could have sworn there was real chili in her real kitchen and I admit, I wanted her to send me a bowl! It was personal, authentic and it brought the joy of shared food to Twitter.
b. Folks on #UsGuys twitter tribe offer each other #coffee all morning. It creates an atmosphere of awareness of what members are up to during their day and illustrates that they are paying attention to one another. Maybe a different tribe would share #expresso or #instant coffee. Offering #SoyMochachino on #UsGuys might reveal someone as not #UsGuys-culturally literate?
2. Remote food/drink sharing:
This medium gives weight to special events: honoring someone, acknowledging their change in status or showing support when times are difficult. Do it with personal intent! Don’t confuse this with sweepstakes, where someone wins. That is sales and marketing, not community and culture. The challenge with remote food giving is that the community doesn’t experience the tradition directly. In these cases, it is a good idea to make a ritual around the giving/receiving of the food, like a tweet up and photo or video sharing.
a. Could your community come together and send someone a gift certificate to eat out? Perhaps there is a common food theme in your community, like coffee houses, taco street vendors, BBQ.
b. Or even better, send a bowl of oranges. Think of that person sitting at their table everyday for a week, associating the look and smell with their online tribe. This bowl of oranges could be twizzlers or homemade goods. The important thing is that food is in their house for them to see, smell, eat and share and that the food is relevant to the community culture.
c. Whatever you do, do the same thing multiple times. I am not saying that you have to have the same food every time. Christmas dinner has a lot of variety, but we all have a common cultural idea of what makes the Christmas meal. Food sharing has to have an element of symbol, something that represents the community.
3. In Real Life (IRL) food/drink sharing:
This medium is for gatherings, coming together face-to-face with other members of your community. There is inherent bonding value in eating and drinking together, as we all know. When does it become cultural?
a. It is nice when a company throws a party and there is free food, but this is usually a sales pitch, seller to sellee. Plus we all know the perceived value of free stuff! This is not the most powerful vehicle to bond a group. It is better if everyone pitches in somehow.
b. As with the item above, you don’t all have to eat the same menu every time you meet, although if things developed that way, I would take that as a sign of a strong culture and bond in a group. But do have a common, repeated theme that signals, this is your community meeting. Even a joke food that everyone hates has cultural bonding significance. A friend of mine throws a Spam potluck party every year that has a cult following.
Please remember: You cannot create a culture out of thin air and shove it down folks throats. Food tradition is a part of who we all are. Given half a chance it will emerge. Maybe this post can give you new ideas about how to break bread with your community. Food for thought… (I had to, really, I had to).
Now I am hungry! I would be delighted with any examples you have of your online communities developing a food tradition.
With my upcoming SXSW Interactive panel, I have been thinking a lot about what we are looking for in online communities. This post is the first of several that I hope will start discussions about the future of “community.”
I recently learned a lot about my Great-grandfather’s life in a 4 hour road trip with my mother. He was a Texas farmer who took great pride in his independence. He and his wife worked very hard to supply themselves with everything they possibly could. The neighborhood barter economy or resource pooling supplemented most of what they could not produce themselves. Money was used as a last resort. Great-grandmother sewed all the clothes. The neighbors pitched in to buy a communal tractor. My grandmother’s university education was purchased with pigs and cows at the Belton, Texas’ University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
My Great-grandfather lived in a community that was critical to his lifestyle, to his idea of independence. The neighbors pitched in when someone needed help, pooled resources for everyone’s benefit and traded with one another. I don’t know if my Great-grandfather liked any of his neighbors, agreed with their politics, faith or enjoyed the same hobbies (probably didn’t have much time for hobbies). But they were bonded in a very fundamental way. Tolerating one another had very real material benefits.
Today, observers raise concerns that we increasingly seek like minded people in the digital space. But, hey! What a delight to discover 100’s, even 1,000’s, of people who share our interest or perspective. Consumer Tribes is an academic term for consumer’s sometimes loyal, sometimes flighty interaction with company brands. Loyal brand communities represents the Holy Grail for modern marketers since modern consumers are perceived as fundamentally distracted, distractible.
Is that what is really going on? Are we just chasing online cocktail parties of like minded folks?
I’m not sure. I wonder if we seek what my Great-grandfather had; community on an existential level. We change jobs, move across the country, rely on money and contracts (life and health insurance, loans, investment funds), not other people, to provide security in our lives. The kind of local interdependence my great-grandparents, even my grandparents’s had, is no longer the fabric of our society.
I have been in my new town less than 2 years. After such a short time, who here can know me well enough to count on me when they are in terrible need? Our modern sensibility would find it odd for me to enter into a loan with my neighbors like my Great-grandfather did. What has gone astray with our new definition of independence?
Are we journeying through the digital space, looking for some illusive sense of community that has gone missing? I see evidence of this behavior: a sheltered teen’s 700 Facebook friends, a single, rural woman constantly and obsessively tweeting with 100 people she has never met…
But can the digital realm provide satisfaction?
My cousin, who has played on the same guild in Everquest for over a decade, tells me stories of how guild members arrived in times of great need (death, illness) even before family members. Guild members may change jobs, towns, and so on, but they congregate faithfully several times a week to combine resources in the virtual space. At times, these decade long relationships are stronger than family bonds.
What do you think? Will we find ways to migrate more and more material as well as emotional reliance to our digital communities? Are barter sites and sites like Kickstarter.com, and ughlyquilts.org going to become the new communal resource pooling?
Will you ever go in on a tractor with me?