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Preface to Seth Godin’s Tribes: Urban tribes and digital tribes, two simultaneous phenomena (part 2)

July 18th, 2009 · 4 Comments · Entrepreneurs, Talents, Innovators

For part 1: Tribes are more than a trendy phenomenon

Urban tribes and digital tribes, two simultaneous phenomena… Godin rightfully reminds us that the creation of a tribe, and its goals, are independent from technology. Tribes didn’t appear yesterday and did not wait for the Internet era. Many of the examples of tribes selected by Godin can exist without digital support — and generally speaking the definition of a postmodern tribe is pretty close to definitions provided by anthropologists and historians. A tribe is first and foremost a connected group on a mission championed by a chief/leader. Therefore, the best technologies in the world are downright irrelevant if there is no leadership, and proficient facilitators that can be leveraged by a leader. This is where the Internet becomes such a powerful factor: “There are literally thousands of ways to coordinate and connect groups of people that just didn’t exist a generation ago.”

Meanwhile, it so happened that postmodern tribes in music, cities, and fashion (I myself explored the non-aligned looks of the late seventies/early eighties in one of my books of the history of fashion), emerged at the same time as digital tribes, even though there is no correlation between them. In the eighties, tribes are obviously part of the Zeitgeist, and since then, we have all witnessed the growing tie between analog and digital tribes.

Digital tribes have their own history. In the early eighties, efforts to optimize the interconnection of computer networks (initially started by RAND Corporation in the fifties to facilitate cooperation between its research teams in Pennsylvania and California) came to fruition, and the need to unify communication protocols led to the adoption of TCP/IP in 1982 — along with the definition of the word “Internet.” However, Internet or not, technology-enabled interconnections of geographically dispersed people had already started to expand beyond research organizations, reaching sundry university groups. The first real digital tribes appeared with the first NewsGroups: Usenet was conceived in 1979 by two American students from Duke University (Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis). Discussion groups multiplied: in 1981, Ira Fuchs created BITNET (acronym of “Because It’s Time Network”) for liberal arts professors, and by 1984, it was connecting over 150 campuses. In 1986, Eric Thomas, then a student at l’Ecole centrale de Paris, invented LISTSERV, an automated mailing list manager that enabled users to join a list without the need for human administration; this introduced the concept of a list owner.

Throughout the eighties, services proliferated. User forums sprang left and right on CompuServe, or you could favor the Apple route via AppleLink, for example. Then, in the course of the nineties, everybody progressively adopted the Word Wide Web, a system of interlinked hypertext documents using TCP/IP, that Tim Berners-Lee and Roger Cailliau had set up in 1989/1990 to enable researchers at the CERN to share information. The increase of Internet users expanded and modernized the concept of NewsGroup. That’s the key to the success of companies such as eGroups, started in 1997: eGroups had 18 millions users when they were acquired by Yahoo! in August 2000 and integrated within Yahoo! Groups — itself launched in 1998. The eGroups phenomenon prefaced the explosion of social networks: Friendster and Meetup created in 2002, MySpace, Linkedin, Rize,, Hot or Not, Yafro in 2003, Facebook in 2004. Dozens of others appeared at the same time and more later, from Advogato to, including Ning, imeem,, Classmates, Flixster Twitter, Ning, Odnoklassniki, Orkut, YouKu, Tudou, ou,, Plaxo, Habbo, BlackPlanet, MyHeritage… the list is nearly infinite.

These days, there are digital tribes for every possible domain of interest, addressing virtually all the aspects of who we are personally and professionally. As Michel Serres said in his lecture at Stanford (May 20, 2009), “our identity is the fuzzy intersection of all the places we belong,” and it is by no means a homogeneous reality – no more than we are an individual in the strict sense of the term, that is, an indivisible entity. Our “identity” is distributed across multiple environments, defined by multiple factors and scattered across multiple activities. The Latin word tribuere (of which the word “tribe” is derived) means to divide, share, assign, allocate (and the Latin “tribe” is the arrangement of people into groups). In short, each of us, to paraphrase Michel Serres, is the fuzzy intersection of tribes. This, by itself, is not new; what is new, though, is that each of us is now able to easily express this multiplicity via the Internet — to choose to belong to several tribes either as leaders or as followers. While it is true that tribes, as well as the motivations that lead us to create or join them do exist outside the digital world, the digital world has allowed people to express themselves more easily and freely (with the added bonus of pseudonyms) and to strengthen connections with peers in real time. Today, the Internet amplifies tribalism in huge proportions.

Part 3: The Convergence of Tribes: The Obama Campaign


Le Chic et le Look , Hachette Littérature, 1981 (out of print).

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