Social Networks And The New Tribalism

Blonde 2.0 (I love that handle) reports on a survey conducted by An De Jonghe (who apparently blogs only in Dutch, alas Update: she emailed her english language blog info to me. Here’s the post on the survey results) on adoption of social networks. The survey has a very small number of participants (850) but the results may be revealing, anyway. It seems that more and more professionals are trying to use social networks as an aspect of work and career advancement.

[from Blonde 2.0 – Survey on Social Networks Worldwide]


Who was the average Joe who filled out this survey?

Male, between 30 and 40 years old, in a relationship, with children. Above you can see the percentage of people who participated in each country. Surprisingly only 27% of women participated, even though they are generally considered as being heavier users of social networks.

Which social networks were found to be most popular?

Linkedin clearly takes the lead when it comes to business networking, or networking in general, in the demographic group that was surveyed. This is exactly the reason why I believe that all the people who are leaving Linkedin now and focusing all their efforts on Facebook, are making a mistake. Don’t get me wrong, Facebook is definitely my preferred network these days but I still think that many professionals view Linkedin as a more appropriate platform to network.

Why do people join a social network?

Surprisingly, a whopping 89% put “professional use” as their number one reason to join an online community. 53% use social networks to socialize and stay connected with friends and a meager 16% join social networks if they cater to their hobbies. An states that these results completely disprove the belief that online communities are predominantly used by teenagers who like to chat and socialize. She also writes that this survey makes you question the survival chances of specialized networks (niche networks) that don’t currently offer a business advantage.

I must say that I think these numbers are somewhat skewed given the demographic of the group surveyed and the fact that a large group of the participants are users of Ecademy, a business networking site. If a younger, less “business oriented” group of people had been surveyed, I think that most of them would say they use networks for socializing and interacting with their friends.

I agree with Blondie in part: the age demographic skews the results. The relatively paunchy 30-40 year-old Gen X demographic does not line up with growing Gen Y and Z sensibilities. But I don’t go along with the ‘socializing and interacting with friends’ without shaking it up a bit.

I think a new tribalism is starting to emerge through social connection on the web. A bottom-up, emergent sense of allegiance through web-enabled communities is supplanting twentieth century, industrial era alienation. While tribalism has its dark side – a tendency toward inter-tribal conflict and aggression – the wiring of the human mind and new social technologies are combining to engender neo-tribalism.

Many of the motivations for participation in social networks are fundamental, so fundamental that they are unlikely to find their way to a survey of the sort An De Jonghe has conducted. What we need is a more anthropological study, by Robin Dunbar or his ilk. Participation in social networks – which leads to affiliation with a specific subset of the greater population in the network, or, a ‘tribe’ – conveys certain advantages to the participants:

  • An increased likelihood of financial rewards – access to better, more interesting, and more rewarding work, for example. These are direct – like hearing about new opportunities earlier than non-networked individuals – and indirect. Indirect benefits derive from having access to common repositories of information, and the ability to draw on social capital through tribal-style group altruism where members can ask others for assistance with an increased likelihood of positive results.

  • An increased likelihood of opportunities to have sex – yes, it’s not all about high-minded career advice: people are hooking up.
  • A human-scale sense of belonging – the growing disaffection with increasingly out-of-touch national governments and transnational organizations (The World Bank, The United Nations, The European Union, and so on) are leading to a narrowing of allegiance. In some parts of the world, existing tribal affiliation is resurgent, as in the chaos created by the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. In other parts of the world, even in western countries, regionalism based on political, cultural or language affiliation is leading to a lessening of the role of the nation state. Consider the growing autonomy demanded by Catalans in Spain, or the continued conflict in Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians are 90% of the population and are unwilling to be part of a ‘Greater Serbia’.

My primary relationship with the world is through my social network, and I don’t mean Facebook: I mean the specific collection of a few hundred people that I connect with through a smorgasbord of tools and services. And this is more important to me than other allegiance. More important than religion (not that I have one, really, aside from a diffused sort of Taoism), locality (I am a nomad, after all, like many tribal peoples), and definitely more than nationality (I haven’t felt very American for some time).

The difference with the new tribalism is that it is borderless, and isn’t organized as an exclusionary system. Some may reject new tribalism as being in conflict with their other allegiances. Hard bitten business types who feel that the purpose of work is to crush competitors and win at all costs will find the inherent altruism and shared social capital of web tribalism incompatible with their world view. Religions that are based on hatred of non-believers or those that have different beliefs will find web tribalism a growing threat to their exclusionary practices. Centralized national governments will fan the fires of industrial-era patriotism, but will find less adherents that are willing to bond with the notion of national interests trumping global and personal concerns.

I veered a bit from the thread of why 850 individuals thought that social networks are useful. But I believe that the deep purpose of social networks lies beneath the purely conscious tangible benefits that flicker through the respondents heads as they answer the narrowly focused questions. The deep structure of future human connection is being contrived, now, on the web, and it will slowly unseat other systems, like an oak tree growing in a churchyard, encroaching on the cathedral’s foundations with roots that are deeper and stronger than artifice can achieve. This is in us, it is in the wiring, and social tools are allowing us to rechannel our ancient tribal past in a post-industrial future. Nothing can stop it.

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