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Tribes vs. Communities: You Be The Judge

Posted by Bill Lee on June 6, 2011 at 03:35 PM

What shall we call peer association groups--such as those formed by dog lovers, or software engineers, or quilters, or Harley owners? Or, more to the point for my particular audience, what shall we call peer groups that companies form for their customers, or that customers form for themselves?

Seth Godin and others have advocated we call them tribes. I'm advocating communities. Names matter, particularly when they come with histories attached, so let's look at the historical differences. I'll let you be the judge.

  • Tribes are exclusionary. They impose arbitrary criteria on membership--things like race, ethnicity, kinship. Communities tend toward inclusiveness. Doesn't matter what your color, race, heritage are--do you share our values and interests? Join us!
  • Tribes tend to be hierarchial, with social structure based on rank. Communities tend toward egalitarianism, with status conferred by merit, not social rank.
  • Tribes tend to be autocratic. They're typically ruled by a "chief." Communities tend toward empowerment. Thomas Jefferson regarded the town halls built by the early communities in New England as the great laboratories for the democracy that emerged in America.
  • Tribes value traditionalism, the way we've always done things. Communities value education. They're more interested in "what's next?" than "what was." 
  • When it comes to outsiders, tribes are about "us vs. them." Communities are about "how can we grow something bigger than either of us alone?"

Look at regions, such as the Middle East or AFrica, where tribes form the foundation for societies. They inculcate an outlook that's hard to overcome in their efforts to build modern, liberal, entreprenurial societies.  Communities, on the other hand, were the social building blocks in America. Were they always perfect--of course not, human nature being what it is. But they were key to our entrepreneurism and democracy. 

Want me to join your "tribe"? I'll pass. I'll go with that other group that calls itself a community.

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