The tribal web

This is the final post in the Digital Tribe series, which is abridged from Chapter 6 of the edited volume Connected Minds, Emerging Cultures (2009).

Anthropologists ascribe a variety of definitions to the word 'tribe' and it can be a contentious term. Most are agreed though, that a tribe is a small society that has its own customs and culture and that these define it. This series has explored the notion of digital tribes and clans, and has applied these concepts to those who consistently inhabit virtual spaces. Such digital territories are ideal environments within which new forms of cultural transmission can propogate and sustain themselves. The tribes and clans I have identified, it could be argued, are emerging as a direct result of their sustained interaction with, and through, social technologies.

Attempting to categorise the behaviour of online users into distinct tribal characteristics can be problematic, because behaviour in virtual worlds (and indeed in the real world) is ultimately diverse and often chaotic or inconsistent. When observed in its entirety however, the trails of evidence emerging on the Web can readily support the notion of the virtual clan. Individuals have an inherent need to belong, so groupings will occur naturally in the real world, in families, kinship groups, clans and other social collectives. The evidence for clannish behaviour online is abundant too, as seen in the creation of specific cultural artefacts that identify distinct web user groupings. The tacit gathering around new 'digital totems' to form transient interest groups is another form of evidence (e.g. Ning, MMORPGS, Crowdvine) as is the marking out of territories through the sharing of social bookmarks, the tagging of digital objects and voting for preferences and usability (e.g. Delicious, Digg). Consistent representation of digital identity within specific tools (recall the Facebooker and Flickrite tribal differences) is yet another form of evidence for the existence of virtual clans.

It should also be acknowledged that clans tend to emerge within tribes as cutural definitions and user generation of digital artefacts become more pronounced. There may be one single digital tribe in the broadest sense of its meaning, but an analysis of the virtual world and it multitude of social networking and communication behaviours indicates that there are indeed many subsets of this large digital tribe - they are the virtual clans, and although we shift our allegiances, we may each belong to several.

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