From Online Tribes to Coalitions

How the Evolution of Online Communities is Impacting Global Digital Culture.

In 2016, I created a framework that enabled me to map the digital spaces that I was tracking and researching. My focus was on understanding the investment of both intimacy and time that people were making as a part of fandoms and digital tribes that spanned several tech platforms.

Here’s the first version:

v1.0–2016

Since then, both my understanding of digital communities and the technologies that facilitate them have evolved and so I thought I would return with an updated version of the framework, especially since we’re seeing some fascinating new behavior emerge within the context of the current Black Lives Matter protests happening around the world (more in the video below).

Here’s the updated version:

Here are the major changes:

1. Tribes: Increase in Complexity and Non-Adjacent Interactions

Regions:

Tribes have always been large and diverse, but over the last several years their sheer numbers have grown enormously. I realized labeling entire “communities” as a Tribe didn’t make sense. Instead, it was helpful for me map where a particular tribe was situation in terms of overall digital region.

For example, as you can see in the image, “Witches” actually represents a broader occult community online that encompasses several different Tribes, in this case Chaos Witches, Pagans, Crystal Witches, Wiccans, etc. The image above is by no means a complete map, but just a visual representation of the concept. As the Internet continues to evolve, so too does the availability and diversity of the sub-communities that are emerging. Every blue dot represents a digital region, a doorway into far more numerous sub-communities.

Coalitions:

Interactions between Tribes from the same digital region has been a long established practice in large part due to the acceptance of multi-fandom membership (the idea that it was ok to be a “fan” of more than one group at a time, something that was previously frowned upon). So the links between adjacent communities was natural and expected.

What’s new, especially within the context of digital behaviors is digital communities that are engaging with other tribes from outside of their region. For example, when Anonymous called on K-Pop fans to flood racist hashtags with fancams or when witches says they would support BLM protestors — those were new connections linking previously unrelated digital groups together and allowing them to mobilize with a huge scale. This is creating new channels of communication and engagement between communities. I believe coalitions are evolving and sit between Tribes & Flocks, because it remains to be seen how long these alliances will hold and what lasting relationships or new communities will emerge as a result of them.

2. Ecosystems have become Biomes

Again, even though it feels like a lifetime ago, much of online community research has treated Tribes as being limited to one platform (ie/ Tumblr). And while I originally categorized platforms/social networks as ecosystems that could facilitate a broad variety of community activities depending on how it was being used and by who. But now, it’s becoming easier and easier for people to share content across multiple platforms easily. I can share from Instagram to Facebook and Twitter, I can share TikToks to my IG Stories, and the result is that these ecosystems are becoming increasingly overlapping spaces, and I wanted to reflect the increased interactions between the platform themselves as well.

3. Biomes & Flocks

The rise of Biomes also has an impact on Flocks (short term engagements usually denoted by the use of a temporary hashtag). The cross platform engagement has seen some hashtags that have grown into long-standing anchors of a community and ways for members to find each other. This is especially true in Tribes and Regions that engage in high-volume social media activities and use hash tags as a core part of their community participation. In these instances you’ll see short-term flocks (BTS’s latest album #mapofthesoul) be paired with long-standing established hashtags (#btsarmy).

4. Single Servings

This quadrant remain transactional, but depending on the relationship of the buyer and seller, it could fit as activities that support Tribes. For example, members of one fandom buying fan art from another fan that they know versus from a seller they’ve never met.

The Quadrant can either be used to map coalitions (like the image above) or to focus on a specific region, like the K-pop fandom seen here:

In this case (again, not exhaustive, just to illustrate the point) I’ve focused on the Tribes that make up the K-Pop Region as a whole. As you can see, the Biomes facilitate the Tribe’s behaviors, while Flocks form and dissipate. I haven’t listed the permanent hashtags here, though I would list them in my analysis.

I’m currently working on a micro-version of this framework, specifically focused on mapping subset of a Tribe into the various factions, etc. I’m still iterating and haven’t nailed that yet, but when I do, I’ll post it here.

I’m also including a blank version in case you want to print it or import it into your drawing software (I use paper53 on my iPad).

As a disclaimer: I’m not saying this is the best way to map fandoms or online communities. This has been the approach that has worked best for my and my research process.

Rahaf Harfoush is a Digital Anthropologist and Author of “Hustle & Float: Reclaim Your Creativity and Thrive in a World Obsessed With Work.” She is the Executive Director of the Red Thread Institute of Digital Culture in Paris. If tech and culture are your jam, consider subscribing to her monthly newsletter.

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