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 getting an anime education from my cousin. She has a stack of DVDs for me to watch. As a westerner, the different cues in manga drawing jumped out at me right away. I have found few online guides to these visual codes. Video: “How to draw…” and Robin E. Brenner’s book Understanding Manga and Anime.
Here are some of the anime visual triggers I have learned:
- During excitement, rage, anger the facial features are reduced to the most simple cartoon lines, like an abstraction of the face.
- The bigger, more doe-like the eyes, the stronger the indication of innocence.
- Vertical lines on the cheek or a horizontal pink bar indicate blushing.
- If you don’t know what nosebleeds mean, you do need to watch more anime.
- Some drawing standards unique to manga/ anime:
Eyebrows are visible through transparent hair
Small, often pointed chins
This is as far as I have gotten in my anime training concerning these visual standards, this symbolic language. I am not sure my sensei (Hi, cousin) is impressed with my progress.
The examples of symbolic languages are endless! In my previous post I referenced Kanji and middle ages still life painting. Since exploring examples is so much fun, here is a list from my brainstorming. Think about all of these in terms of a group language:
- Heraldic, the language of coat of arms.
- Rich symbolic references in paintings of Madonna and Child.
- Andy Warhol’s treatment of icons has become iconic itself. This shows us the level of sophistication available within symbolic expression.
If we widen the list to body language:
- Everything from insulting hand gestures to head wobbling to indicate “yes” or “no” are specific to a culture or group
- Traditional indian dance poses
- Sign language, of course!
- Semaphore, the communication using towers and visual signals or flags to send messages quickly over long distances.
We are surrounded by visual systems of communication, many of which are very sophisticated. In marketing and advertising we create visual language systems we call brands, including but not limited to logos, color treatments, fonts and so on…
So what does this have to do with building strong digital tribes?
We know that verbal language and naming, addressed in previous posts, is foundational and integral to shared group experience and perspective. Systemic visual expressions are additional, effective and really fun mechanisms to build a communal language. This can work as an external indicator, like coats of arms, or be a completely insider language, like Graffiti.
Do your communities have a visual language or symbols? Considering how ideal the digital medium is for this kind of expression, I am surprised at how infrequently I see this in action. Really, at a minimum, every group should have a visual symbol, a shield, a logo.
Some things to think about for your community:
- A heraldic approach can be taken to create a visual “shield” or logo of a group, subgroup and individual. What should make up your coat of arms?
- Even simple symbols can become powerful shared expressions of a cause, values or humor. Think of the pink ribbons, fish and darwin symbols on cars. (Looking for a good example of a humorous symbol)
- Since it is unlikely that an entire verbal language will form for your community, leveraging visual, symbolic communication can go a long way to strengthen the bonds of “us-ness.”
Do you have examples of symbols being used effectively by a digital tribe? Have you seen visual languages go terribly, terribly wrong? (Don’t say math! I almost failed that class, too. But that isn’t what we are discussing here.)
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?