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What digital tribes can learn from Native Americans

For all our ability to change the world around us with new technology, humans have never been very good at naming our new inventions. Usually we resort to old words, old concepts to explain the very new. And so the word “tribe” has been adopted to describe groups of people, scattered around the globe, connected only by the internet and their passion for a particular topic.

So what can these new digital tribes learn from one of the world’s oldest surviving tribal societies, the Native Americans? Speaking at last month’s South By Southwest Interactive festival, tribal members discussed this idea’s possibilities and its limits.

Allison Aldridge-Saur, director of eMarketing for the Chickasaw Nation Division of Commerce, described how she noticed word “tribe” popping up in digital contexts and started thinking about what it meant, considering she was a tribal member in real life.

A useful starting point is a working definition of a “tribe”, helpfully supplied by fellow panelist Circe Sturm, a cultural anthropologist from the University of Austin. A tribe is a form of political unit that falls between roving bands of hunter-gatherers and modern government. It’s a form of self government in which the members are bonded by kinship and by cultural heritage. And, perhaps the most critical factor, a tribe has historical continuity.

A digital tribe, on the other hand, is a group of people with shared interests and values, who interact with each other and get to know each other online. The depth of their connection depends very much on how much they value that shared interest.

In order to find common ground between these very different domains, the panel simplified tribal life into three “tribal pillars”:

  1. Culture and ritual
  2. Hierarchy and governance
  3. Leadership and mission

Lou Ordorica, an online community manager and also a tribal member, described a lighthearted initiation ritual at JavaRanch, an online Java certification community. New members are marked as “greenhorns” and are taken care of by certified members until they meet certain criteria.

Aldridge-Saur has a similar story about her experiences in an experimental Twitter tribe named “Us Guys”. Whenever a new member joins, all of the existing members welcome them with the phrase “ringing the bell” and a mention of the new member’s Twitter username. “When building a community watch for repetitive daily behaviour – ritual is just something we do daily” explained Holly Counter Beaver, a UX specialist and fellow tribe member.

“Traditional kinship is impossible in digital realms, but there are forms of kinship that defy traditional definitions,” said Sturm. Practices like naming, ritual, shared values and norms can all help to bond people in digital communities.

But how does an online community deal with inevitable conflict? “If communities become too large and popular, they can lose their way. How do we scale communities?” asked Aldridge-Saur.

The panelists agreed on two vital components of their own tribal hierarchy: the importance of face to face contact with leaders, and the importance of consensus seeking. “When things get bigger and communities get harder to manage, seek out band or clan representatives,” advised Aldridge-Saur.

When asked how their own tribes deal with conflict Aldridge-Saur summed it up: “With ritual – the coming together of band leaders, consensus building cloaked in ritual practice.” This is no less applicable, or urgent, in online tribes. “A digital community can implode if people don’t feel their concerns / voices are taken seriously. It breaks trust and kinship.” warned Counter Beaver.

When, inevitably, the conversation turned to Seth Godin’s book, “Tribes”, the panelists were less than complimentary. “Seth Godin’s book really irritated me,” grumbled Aldridge-Saur, “Native American tribes have survived missions, good leaders, bad leaders, governments. This looks way beyond the merely motivational aspect of Godin’s book.” Counter Beaver was equally dismissive: “My problem with Godin’s book is that it missed a whole aspect of tribal life – the community and collective commitment that will endure beyond conflict.”

All the panelists are careful to draw distinctions between real tribal life and online communities. “The difference between digital tribes and Native American tribes is crystallised by one sentence ‘I am Chikasaw’,” explained Aldridge-Saur. “No one is going to stand up and say ‘I am Apple’ or ‘I am 4chan’. In my tribe are people that would take care of my children if I died – that is powerful.”

But they’re equally wary of idealised views on tribal life. “In American Indian tribes there’s always conflict,” said Counter Beaver, “Over the years we’ve resorted to all kinds of ways of resolving conflict including banishment and execution. But of course we didn’t do that unless the conflict undermined the viability of our whole community.”

Whether or not they will ever truly mimic real tribes, all the panelists agree that digital tribes come from the same place in the human spirit. Sturm sees this as a basic human need: “Part of the way people are trying to get their needs met is to have that sense of enduring connection to communities.”

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