No, You Don’t Have a Tribe

This word “tribe” has become so prevalent online, that today I want to address how it has become a marketing term we feel comfortable with, but is otherwise somewhat hollow.

No, you don’t have a tribe. My apologies, I am sorry to break this to you. You are not a tribal leader. Yes, I know you have people who signed up for your newsletter list; people who follow you on Twitter, who Like you on Facebook, who subscribe to your blog, who attend your conference, who buy your book, who volunteer to assist you, and who generally rave about you and tell all of their friends. But you are not their leader, and this isn’t a tribe.

When I first heard the term “tribe” in relation to online communities, I liked how it cut across traditional boundaries in our lives. That perhaps many of us are defined this way:

  • I am a husband/wife/girlfriend/boyfriend
  • I am a father/mother/aunt/grandmother/sister/brother
  • I do _______ for a living
  • I live in _______ town
  • I graduated from ______ school

But this list above didn’t really reflect the other stuff I may be passionate about. That which inspires me, or is a hobby I am obsessed with. Or a group of people I align with who aren’t my family, college buddies or colleagues at work. This “tribes” word seemed to solve that.

That if I am passionate about healthy living, but don’t work in that field, saying that I am a member of a healthy living tribe made me feel more whole.

In the early 2000’s I remember a friend who was very active on the social network. She found person after person who was passionate about the same things she was. And that is pretty much awesome.

What has surprised me as the word “tribe” became more popular, is this distinction:

  • MEMBERSHIP OF A TRIBE: When I first heard the term “tribe” I thought it was used to mean alignment. That you have found others who care about the things you do. That this was a relationship of kinship, and the word “tribe” symbolized the connection you feel to these other people. As equals, as members of a larger tribe of like-minds. That it was being respectful that this is not a speaker vs audience relationship. Everyone is equal, and the audience isn’t passive. All have something to contribute.
  • LEADER OF A TRIBE: But what I see again and again is not that; what I see is people needing to take a leadership role. That if I sign up for someone’s newsletter list, it is THEIR tribe, they are the leader, and I am the follower. I am now in his or her tribe. They are tribal leaders. They say “my tribe” not to indicate that they BELONG to a tribe, but that they are leading a tribe.

And that is, well, bullshit. At that point, the idea behind the word “tribe” becomes a mere marketing term. Like many marketing terms, it’s goal is to make you feel special, and in doing so, it sells something. Maybe not with money, but adherence to an idea.

Seth Godin released a book called Tribes, and from my vantage point, seemed to really popularize the use of this term in online communities in a much bigger way. Now, sure, Seth wants to sell books, but someone like him is selling something else too. You can call it “thought-leadership” or a thousand other things. But Seth wants you to feel special. I analyzed this exact thing with Seth in terms of his recent Kickstarter campaign. That it was framed not as a way for him to raise money, but as an “us vs them” battle, where if you supported his campaign, it became an identity, support for a larger cause. But really, it was just marketing. Funny how supporting the idea meant giving him money.

When I think of the term “tribe” in the context of how we connect online and off, this is what I think of:

  • You don’t build a tribe, you join a tribe.
  • You give back to a tribe, you don’t try to establish your own power center within it.
  • You serve the group, while, over time, they support you back.
  • Value is measured in anything BUT quantitative measures such as followers, fans, likes, subscribers or customers.

What does it mean to really be a member of a tribe. To support a tribe? To pledge allegiance to a tribe? How many allegiances to how many tribes is too much? If I subscribe to newsletters from 10 people, follow 200 people on Twitter, and pay to see 20 people speak at a conference, am I now a member of 230 tribes? What does this even mean anymore?

Looking at Wikipedia, it seems there is plenty of discussion about what constitutes a tribe in the traditional sense, and some believe that “tribes in general are characterized by fluid boundaries and heterogeneity, are not parochial, and are dynamic.”

But we use the word because we intend for it to mean something, this word “tribe.”

Where does loyalty fit into this? Or sacrifice? Or suffering through the bad and the good? To me, these are some of the components that make a meaningful affiliation, something worthy of the term “tribe.” Even with something like being a fan of a sports team seems to require these things… it is not allowed to just be a “fan” of whichever team is winning at the moment.

Case in point: recently, it was revealed that Jonah Lehrer made up some quotes for his book. Now, where is his tribe? Do they suffer with him? Do they answer for his mistakes? Or, do they just say snarky comments, ignore it, wait it out, or unsubscribe from his newsletter list?

What is the role of a “tribe” in this context? If Jonah is either a member of, or even leader of, a tribe, do his misdeeds banish him from the tribe, to walk alone in the desert forevermore? Does “his tribe” try to rehabilitate him? Do they help him when he is down? (obviously – the Jonah Lehrer situation is a bit more complicated because there seems to have been intentional trickery on his part.)

The word tribe has become really useful in marketing:

  • It give people an identity, which is the underpinning of most of marketing.
  • It makes people feel a part of something. That, by putting a label on themselves as a member of a tribe, the attributes of the tribe IMMEDIATELY reflect them. The barrier for entry is so low.

    They don’t have to really work to do it, pass a test, or sacrifice anything. Just agreeing with a Tweet makes you a tribe member. Disagreeng with the next one comes with no penalties. It’s a fluid motion to go in and out of a “tribe” from moment to moment. Kind of like how buying and eating certain fast food is akin to making a political statement nowadays. Politics never tasted so good.

  • A modern “tribal leader” is often selling something, somewhere. Now, I do NOT mind people selling stuff. I sell stuff, my courses, workshops and consulting. But I don’t pretend that by signing up for my course, you are representing some ideal, and the only way to prove your allegiance is to give me money.
  • It allows us to avoid traditional marketing terms because nowadays, marketing is all about “authenticity.” So we just change the language, but not the underlying tactics.

Now, if you use the word “tribe,” that’s fine by me. I am definitely not picking on anyone in particular here, I just want to point out the difference between creating real meaning, having a real impact, and building a real legacy, vs marketing terms and tactics. Oddly, it’s a fine line. And those who use the word “tribe” are doing so with the very best of intentions. I do not, in any way shape or form, think that they are trying to pull the wool over on anyone’s eyes. But the term has become so pervasive and been contorted to mean so many things, I just wanted to reframe the conversation a little bit.

Words come into vogue and move out of popularity. At this moment in time, “tribe” is one of those words. We sort of “get” it in the context of how we build a following online. It makes us feel better about trying to accumulate followers on Twitter. It just makes us feel better than the word “marketing” or (get ready to feel icky) “sales.”

Recently, I talked about this in terms of the phrase “author platform” as well, that a phrase comes to represent something, and over time, comes to represent something other than it’s original intention. That phrases come in and out of style. But the thing is, that doesn’t mean that the underlying meaning doesn’t still exist. I continue to teach an online course called “Build Your Author Platform” not because I am riding a trend, but because I know it teaches basics that authors need to grow their career, regardless of whether we call it “author platform” or something else. Likewise with “tribe,” that term will fade from fashion eventually and a new term will pop up. A new metaphor that makes us feel better about what we do other than “marketing” and “sales.” Ugh, now I said that word twice. Icky icky icky.

Thanks for reading this post. I am NOT your tribal leader, even if we do believe some of the same things. I do appreciate your time.