I came of age in an internet tribe.
It was the 1990s. Internet tribalism, loft living and a lot of long haul train travel connected me to an amazing network of some of the smartest, most vivid, most alive people I’d ever met. Creative magic happened, adventures were had, communities were built, lives were changed, people were transformed. Always the dominant feeling of an us, the network, the strength and vividness of the tribal experience. It formed me. It made me who I am today.
I think that we’re going into another round of internet tribalism, not based on the expansive wonder of the 1990s, that golden age of peace and prosperity, when so much of internet culture was forged, but based on our current concerns, which are much more about maintaining our current lifestyles against mounting outside pressures. I want to bring forwards a few things that I learned in the 1990s and share them with you.
The first is that the day-to-day warmth of community life built by celebration. It’s the expansiveness of the heart, of people who love and trust each other that builds community. Community is about sharing the course of our lives together. My community was young people who had just discovered the internet and cheap plane tickets, a sort of early couch-surfing scene that quickly evolved into sharing cheap apartments and finding jobs for your mates and some really great times. Once or twice a year as many of us as could come would assemble for a few days, throw a legendary party, and stoke the fire of community for the next year.
The second thing is that communities have a special alchemy. It’s not clear what it is that makes one group bond over a shared love, while another group simply appreciates it. It’s some confluence of forces that does it. One key that I saw over and over again is that community starts with gifts. There’s an expansion, a sense of being appreciated when you come to an event and somebody gives you, and everybody else, something. The thought – perhaps it goes back to birthday parties as a child – that one is receiving a gift opens the heart. At some old level, it says there is enough here to share, and you are welcome.
And we love that.
The third thing is that communities are more than the sum of the individual relationships that comprise them. This is one of the key places where I think that social networking tools like Twitter fall flat on their face. Twitter builds a link between two people at a time – I follow you. The list of people who follow you, and who you follow, changes one person at a time. It’s socially atomized. Now, don’t get me wrong, very strong communities form with Twitter, but those communities aren’t found on Twitter. What you see on Twitter is myriad individual friendships that a community emerges around, but you don’t see the community itself online. You see it at the social gatherings.
In the 1990s, the tools were different. We had mailing lists. And mailing lists were communities by default. The group had an address, a home, and a message to one went to all. The soft boundaries of social space that we see on Twitter were absent – a message was public to the place it was sent to, like putting up a message on a bulletin board in a physical room. The list was the core unit of social interaction, and individual emails held the social space. The computers were making “virtual places” and we went to those places to see our friends.
Twitter is more like being in a world of telepaths.
We send our thoughts out into the void, and people who want to listen do.
But we’ve lost the tight, casual, easy familiarity of the mailing list. We’ve lost the sense of a whole which is larger than the sum of its parts. Twitter’s community is “all users”, and we build our own real-world, face-to-face communities with people we meet on it, but the pairwise links deprive us of the electronic sense of place which was so much a hallmark of my experience as a tribal netizen.
Twitter is a beautiful tool, but it’s not the right tool for the digital village. In its heart of hearts, Twitter is urban – fast moving, broadcast, realtime, geolocated – “I’m in France, same as last month” is not how we use it, it’s “I’m in Trafalgar Square, who’s around for lunch?!”
It’s a beautiful tool that has literally changed my life – a big part of how I found myself settled in the friendships I did in London was Twitter – but the absence of “electronic place” is beginning to make me long for something a little different.
Electronic tribes need different infrastructure, both social and digital, to thrive. And I think we’re moving into a phase of the world where tribal connections that really work are going to be important in a way they have never been before.
I wonder what the platform will look like?