Obama, Tribes, and Social Networking

I hope you were able to watch (or read) President Obama's Inaugural address. As someone passionate about Web and Enterprise 2.0, I was immediately struck by the following portion of his speech (emphasis is mine):

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
Read that bold part again - "...we cannot help but believe...that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve..."

This flys in the face of the huge swell of social network adoption around the world. Social graphs are the new tribes. The technology enables quick and easy formation of tribes (or communities of passion, or affinity maps, or networks of loose and strong connections). In fact, it is this very facility which draws so many to the technology. No longer are our tribes (fully) described and bracketed by familial ties or geographic boundaries or doctrine (though those are still part of the tribal bonds even in the digital world). Rather our tribal invitations are cast globally and members without traditional tribal bonds are welcomed in.

While tribes are growing (not dissolving) it is also apparent that tribes are not all affable knitting circle types (though there is probably a Facebook cause and LinkedIn group for knitting somewhere). Take one look at the digital tribal warfare (flame wars, trolling etc) between opposing Open Source communities or even between the Mac and PC tribes. Take a look at the iPod vs Zune tribes (read the message boards if you're interested) or the Republican and Democrat tribes online. Some have attributed Obama's radical campaign successes to a better mobilization of his digital tribe(s) (see some of Seth Godin's writing on the topic).

Unfortunately, for all the promise that Social Networking technology holds, there is also a dark side. It should come as no surprise that terrorists are using the technology to link together for their dark purposes. The important thing to realize is that the technology is able to link people in tribes that would not have otherwise come together.

In all, tribes, communities of passion, affinity graphs and other interpersonal connections have great promise as well as risk. Rather than envision their dissolution, we should strive for their unfettered adoption then put them to work for the purposes of hope and change - something President Obama is very much for.


While you raise some quality points regarding social networking and the use of technology, the term "tribe" that was used in the speech and the social media spin on the same term have different connotations to me. If I was to correlate the term's differences, I would say that the term tribe used in the speech could be compared to what was originally termed "clustering" when speaking about collaboration verses the connecting of clusters into more diverse wholes for a more modern rendition of the term collaboration. So there is a semantic differentiation, and hopefully I perceive the growth of social media will become a more unification of these clusters of social networking "tribes." The message to me was an encouragement of unity on similar principles, or as Andrew Carnegie said, "Strength is derived from unity. The range of our collective vision is far greater when individual insights become one.”

Posted by Dale on January 21, 2009 at 03:36 AM CST #

Thanks for the comment and thoughtful explanation Dale. I agree with you that the purpose of the message was encouragement of unity. Your last point that "the range of our collective vision is far greater when individual insights become one" is one of the fundamental assumptions behind crowd sourcing, aggregation for business intelligence, and collective intelligence in general. However, I disagree that the semantic differentiation of "tribes" as used in the speech is as stark as you suggest. Obama gives examples of what he means by "tribes" and thereby provides the grounds for the semantic associations that I make in the post. Tribes as Obama describes them, are groups of affinity - people drawn together by a common thread be it a common religion, a common lack of religion, a common ideology, a common culture, a common geography or a common hatred. In short, what semantically describes (signifies) a tribe in Obama's speech is the same that semantically describes a tribe in social networking terms. Obama focuses on divisive tribes (or the divisive effects thereof) and envisions the end of the tribes or maybe the emergence of a single "tribe of the human". I contend though that it is easier than ever for tribes to precipitate out of our technologically enabled social connections. Those tribes may have different borders than older tribes but they can be really something special and a vehicle for change.

Posted by Billy on January 21, 2009 at 04:30 AM CST #

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