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seth godin

On Tribes

I recently became a contributor to the 20fourlabs blog, and wrote this article as my introductory piece. You can read the original here.

In 2008, Seth Godin published a book called "Tribes". In it, he describes the way he thinks people will change the world from now on: by creating and leading Tribes. Finding and connecting a group of like-minded people, and showing them a path to where they want to go, will make them want to follow you. By building a Tribe like this, you'll be able to wield enough influence to make change that matters.

At its core, a Tribe is a group of people with a common interest or goal, who connect and form a community around that idea, or who enable each other to move towards that goal. There are uncountably large numbers of such Tribes on the Internet today, of all sizes, and since everybody can produce content (whether it's updating your Facebook status or writing a regular column on the Mail and Guardian website), everybody has the chance to build up a following of people who are interested in the ideas behind that content. Webcomics build up Tribes of people interested in their strips, maybe because these people identify with the banality of office life, or maybe just because they love the quirky, funny tone behind the strip. Cape Town Daily Photo also has a community, drawn together by the love of a city and the pleasure taken in viewing little slices of life from that city every day. Then there's Seth Godin himself, who has a huge Tribe of people who are fascinated by the way he views marketing and business; they are drawn together by a common interest in online communities and the way that ideas spread through these communities. This Tribe is slightly different in that, while they are definitely interested in what Seth has to say, many of them will be interested merely because of who is saying it. This is a Tribe of the Personality.

Most blogs and other mediums of online content distribution build up a following because people are interested in the theme, or the type of content being produced. Occasionally, however, as with Seth, Neil Gaiman, and Shaquille O'Neal, the common theme that ties the Tribe together is interest in the author, the Tribe leader, the person behind the content. This leader can say whatever he wants, and it will be avidly consumed, not because it is inherently interesting, but because it is what he has to say. There is nothing wrong with this sort of Tribe - it may be harder to be famous enough to warrant that sort of interest, but it's just another common interest that binds people together.

I have a personal blog, which I've run in its current form since 2004. The posts on this blog range from links that I've found interesting, to updates on my life, to thoughts I've had, to lyrics I've enjoyed, to things that have amused me. In fact, the only common theme that runs through all the posts is that they were written by me. I've written about ideas, quantum physics and the Large Hadron Collider and Democracy, amongst other things. Now, although there might be some interesting posts, nobody would actually subscribe to my blog because they enjoy the content - the feed as a whole is incredibly varied, and basically consists of whatever currently interests me. The small group of people who might be interested in that are my friends: they would subscribe precisely because they're my friends and not because the content interests them per se. In other words, without a specific content theme around which my readership could build a Tribe, the only sort of community that might arise is a Tribe of the Personality, and since I'm not a Hollywood movie star, it's not going to be very big.

As I hinted at when I mentioned Shaquille O'Neal, twitter streams are another way of building up a Tribe. In fact, twitter makes the process very, very easy: the moment you follow somebody, you're in their Tribe, reading what they have to say, already being influenced. Finding other members of their Tribe is as trivial as viewing their follower list, and user- and tweet-searches make refining the whole process a cinch. However, it may have become a little too easy, to the extent that a lot of people think that twitter is solely about what Tribes you're in. They worry more about the number of followers they have, and who is following whom, than about what people are actually saying. This is "follower ratio" - how many people follow you, in comparison to how many people you are following - and it is deemed to be a metric for how "good" you are at twitter. In a way, of course, it is - if you're very interesting or amusing, you will gain a large following. However, it seems that it has become something of a cargo cult: people mistake the symptom (having a good follower ratio) for the cause (being "good", or interesting). They start using disgusting tricks to spam people and try to win followers, instead of simply being creative, funny, or simply a great character, and letting the followers come because they want to be a part of the Tribe.

The weird thing about this attitude is that people get upset if they follow somebody, and that person does not follow them back, to the extent that they will often actually unfollow them again, even though they previously deemed their stream worth reading. I find this crazy - it's like refusing to read a blog or website if the author doesn't read yours. What these people are effectively doing is demanding that anybody whose Tribe they join, joins their Tribe. However, they don't actually provide any idea, goal or common interest to bind their Tribe together. Most of their tweets are (you will find) re-tweets of other people, idle banter, and reports on what they've had for breakfast. From "Short and Tweet" at the Washington Post:

The masses of people who "blurt-tweet" and unthinkingly brain-dump into their account, [...] will never achieve anything more meaningful than a public diary.
Like the Tribe around my personal blog, the only thing the members of this person's Tribe can have in common is an interest in the person himself; it is a Tribe of the Personality. To demand that another person join your Tribe when you follow them is pure arrogance: if you've never met them, and the only thing you're offering is your personality, then it's absurdly vain to expect them unconditionally to reciprocate your interest.

This is my first post on the new 20fourlabs blog. Being invited to contribute to this blog is basically being given a ready-made Tribe: you're presented to an audience as somebody who has something interesting to say, and entrusted with the task of holding their attention and growing the Tribe. Hopefully, I - and the other bloggers - will live up to these expectations by providing consistently good content, rather than arrogantly expecting people to remain members of the Tribe no matter what. I'm looking forward to seeing how it works out.

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