Virtual Identity: The Importance of Individuality in Digital Tribes

Sunflowers in Saguache, Colorado by Drew Cole

The concept of the digital tribe is not a new one. Seth Godin established it on the mainstream with his 2008 bestseller “Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us,” where he not only defines tribes, but contributes a method to individuals pushing for change and evolution rather than relying on static management. He calls for companies to collect people and support as a business practice rather than aiming purely to sell.

“New rule: If you want to grow you need to find customers who are willing to join you or believe in you or donate to you or support you. And guess what? The only customers willing to do that are looking for something new. The growth comes from change and light and noise.”

Godin hints at the idea that the modern business needs to build a community and not an audience. An audience is a category of people that are talked at. A community is a category of people that are talked with. An audience takes work, effort, and reaction to maintain. A community is self-sustainable because it relies on contribution and is propelled forward through purpose.

The concept of tribes, and more specifically digital tribes, does not start and end with business but is rather an idea that humanizes the virtual world. A digital tribe can be any community, whether that be Game of Thrones fanatics, avid followers of “Twitch Plays Pokémon” (one of the most bizarre tribes we’ve seen), or the anti-Kony movement. These microcosms of the Internet are both dynamic and powerful.

We think that the notion of tribes needs to be embraced, and ideally sooner rather than later. The tribe allows for context and organization in a world where we are snowballing down the mountainous terrain of the Internet, exponentially gaining momentum, but unsure what obstacles might obstruct our path. By accepting, establishing, and promoting tribes we can roll down this mountain with a path already cleared.

What Exactly is a Digital Tribe?

A digital tribe is a community of like-minded people with shared interests. It is the backbone of any digital ecosystem. It takes leaders and followers, but does not shut the door on a follower becoming a leader.

Like the tribes of old, digital tribes promote sustainable community, contribution, exploration and development. Tribes require leaders, tribes require thinkers, tribes believe in themselves and look to expand upon their ideology.

Social businesses are tribes, fan clubs are tribes, influencers lead tribes, novelty Twitter and Instagram accounts are tribes.

Digital tribes are communities that are inclusive, utilizing members as a vehicle to promote the beliefs of the tribe. Digital tribes are carved out spaces where people with similar mindsets and ideologies can safely interact in a proactive and forward thinking way.

Digital tribes require two things: individuals and direction. Both things can come from extraneous environments. Direction comes from needs, from leaders, from ideas, from momentum. Individuals come from needs, from nurture, from personality, from expression.

The two together become a combination. A directed individual entity ready to claim the space it inhabits. Ready to embrace the age-old cliché and change the world.

Taming Virtual Identities

The Internet is a radical place. It opens up channels of communication both negative and positive in ways that shift the very nature of our humanity.

The Internet is simultaneously gorgeous and ugly. It can be liberating, but also confining and harsh. It allows for identity formation that in the old days would have been the proverbial “leave this dump heap of a town to a get a fresh start.” It is entrancing and relieving to restructure your personality over the Internet, to exercise your ability to say things you would otherwise leave bottled up. To have platforms like Twitter to exhale something hilarious but fleeting, Whisper to deposit the dark side of your life and feel connection, to find the right subReddit that challenges and engages you intellectually. These spaces are new environments, creating places of acceptance that would otherwise be limited through geography and culture.

However, this type of engagement can be individually addicting and depraving. They subtract from physical human connection. They can put up a false identity when confronted with sadness.

All this said because the virtual identity is fickle and walking a high wire act between reality and desire. Walk too close to one end and the other slackens so thoroughly that you cannot turn back.

This is the space where the digital tribe becomes all-important. It fills this in between need by providing affirmation and direction to the individual. The tribe affects the permission factor for the individual to take action in this space. Without the tribe we are aimless because it is a territory yet to be navigated.

The tribe offers balance for identity. The tribe creates an atmosphere of acceptance.

Digital Tribes Moving Forward

It’s important to note that tribes do not stifle individuality, but rather enhance it.

As digital marketers we work with connections between tribes because it is our duty to link an individual with the correct tribe. We are not doing this because we want something to sell, but because we genuinely believe in the power and importance of the digital tribe. It is a necessity for individuals and for modern business to have the right people influencing the right digital space.

One of the most telling and powerful tribes today is Bernie Sanders’ growing presidential campaign. A niche Senator out of Vermont, Sanders is picking up steam for his radical stance against big money in politics and overall mildly socialist tendencies. Using a grass root campaign strategy virtually unheard of in recent memory, Sanders is not buying votes he’s connecting a tribe.

He’s successfully appealing to individuals, including them in the conversation, and thereby respecting the voters. Sanders treats the public not like the public, but as unique personalities that are tired with mistreatment.

This is the power immersed in the idea of the digital tribe. They have the ability to garner individual passions and desires and turn them into movements and revolution. Unbound by geography, unbound by social categorization.

Digital tribes capture the energetic, but sporadic individual and turn them into something useful and forward moving. As individuals, we should embrace the digital tribe because they allow for community and productivity. As marketers we want to embrace the tribe because it brings the community to the people.

We are fascinated by the idea of digital tribes and will continue our exploration, focusing on the groups and leaders of digital tribes rather than the individuals involved. Stay tuned.