Tribalism in a hyper-connected world

Daniel Leslie
Jul 4, 2016 · 5 min read

Brexit is the latest darkness descended upon the Global Village.

A resurgent and toxic nationalism has begun to eat Europe alive, and the internet has become an accelerant poured on the flame.

On this Independence Day in the USA, consider the following:

  • The contested, and now de facto, independence of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea from Ukraine
  • The disastrous and ill-conceived referendum on independence of the UK from the European Union (i.e., Brexit, fundamentally an English nationalist movement)
  • The resulting increased likelihood of independence of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and possibly Wales — that is, the dissolution of the UK itself
  • The now-emboldened EU departure movements in France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Greece
  • The growing independence movement within Catalonia, the Basque region, the Faroe Islands, Corsica, Bavaria, and even Sicily
  • The notable independence movements in every European nation except Hungary, Belarus, and Macedonia

The word itself — independence — belies the reality of the deeply interlinked post-war continent, with roots taken hold over six decades of relative peace after centuries of territorial bloodshed. (The European Union, by any standard, has been enormously successful.)

Rather, European nations are deeply inter-dependent, and a desire to be otherwise, whatever the motivation, is an originalist and (often) xenophobic fantasy, fueled by economic insecurity.

Europe isn’t alone. In December, Eurasia Group (our client) identified terroritorial disputes in the South China Sea as one of the largest geopolitical risks of 2016. (They also made the contrarian observation of the “underestimated” risk of Brexit all the way back in December.)

What’s striking is not just the growth, but the apparent acceleration of independence movements throughout the continent and beyond, happening concurrently with the ever-increasing interconnectedness of culture, economics, and technology.

For the last few decades, Europe has served as both the standard-bearer and the nexus of globalism. The tragedy of Brexit, no matter when if or when it actually happens, is the erosion of UK–European solidarity when it is needed most. And if Article 50 is in fact triggered, that tragedy will be compounded still by the loss of what could have been.

This reader comment in the Financial Times, which made the rounds on twitter shortly after the referendum results were announced, captures the sense of loss and injustice surely felt by almost anyone younger than middle age:

Is nationalism — whether English, French, Chinese, or American — really the source of this distinctly global trend, or a symptom or something more fundamental?

Nationalism is the species, tribalism the genus.

Tribalism is old stuff. It’s older than Sunni and Shia, or Protestant and Catholic. It’s older than Carthage and Athens. It’s doubtless rooted in primate behavior that’s older than humanity itself. But in the twenty-first century, tribalism has manifested itself in fundamentally new ways, with implications for social movements, governments, and the existence of nation states themselves.

And its consequences are often tragic and unjust.

On the domestic front, tribalism has manifested as a kind of hyper-partisanism. Consider this wonderful chart, developed by Caleb Jones, showing nearly 16,852 links between 665 blogs that cover US politics using a force-directed layout. The degree of partisan clustering within the discourse of political internet communities becomes immediately obvious:

The polarization of American politics is just one familiar and particularly unsavory manifestation. More distasteful still is the increase in sectarian violence in the Middle East and the very-much-related rise of European nationalism. Appeals to tribalism are a contributing factor in Russia’s foreign policy of calculated belligerence, rooted in the insecurity of lost empire and its antagonism (whether imagined or real) by the West.

Look to the Middle East and the Sunni/Shia struggle to control swathes of Syria and Iraq. The violence, fueled by a tragic combination of extremist criminals, corrupt national leadership, and political maneuvering by regional powers, threatens to redefine the political and economic realities of the region for decades to come. The borders of those nations, such as they are — and mostly inherited from colonial legacies of the twentieth century — have in some cases evaporated altogether.

The growth and intensity of sectarian ideology appears to be fostered by, rather than diminished by, the effects of digital communications, and in particular of social media platforms which largely ignore national borders but reinforce cultural ones.

On its face, this seems counterintuitive. Why would national or cultural identity matter more in a globalized world, with such deeply interconnected economies, cultures, and communications? Shouldn’t national identity matter less in a connected twenty-first century?

Is the rise of European nationalism a temporary response to the refugee crisis, of economic insecurity, or a more permanent deterioration of a politically unified postwar Europe?

More pointedly, why does religious fundamentalism seem to be increasing in what is otherwise a more secular world?

If the medium is the message, then social media itself is becoming more specialized and tribal. We see this in the rise of everything from hyper-specialized online dating websites to Randall Olson’s terrific visualizations of the proliferation of subreddits on Reddit.com:

When Marshall McLuhan wrote about the Global Village, he envisioned digital or “electronic” media as an extension of consciousness. What happens to humanity, he wondered, when geography is made irrelevant to communication?

Importantly, his concept of a global village is often mischaracterized. The term itself can be misleading; rather than a homogeneous unified cultural experience, he envisioned a kind of hyperlocal bazaar of discourse.

Seth Godin knows a thing or two about tribal phenomena. Tribes, his bestselling book from 2008, portrays a more charitable perspective on how tribalism poses an opportunities for leadership.

For Godin, tribes are an ancient model for understanding audience behavior that is fundamentally modern. Tribes can be in indispensable for connecting with customers in the crowded digital marketplace of the twenty-first century. Cultivating leadership within one’s tribe, he argues, is critical for marshalling support for brands, politicians, or anyone else trying to sell anything to someone in the chaos of the new media landscape.

Will tribalism ultimately strengthen or undermine prosperity in the twenty-first century?

The Global Village anxiously waits to find out.


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Daniel Leslie

Written by

Managing Partner, @reflexions. Contributor, Huffington Post. Technology, data journalism, social justice.

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