Facebook Tribalism

Last Sunday I happened upon a party—beers, burgers, soccer, the whole shebang. I knew some of the people there, but not very well. I had the thought, "Hey, these people I sort of know are having a party and didn't invite me. I think I should be offended. I am offended." They did make up for it, though, by offering me a slider and fermented drink. And, I removed any doubt about my non-invite when I explained that I abstain from ardent spirits.

There was one particular person there whom I'm friends with on Facebook. We "like" each other's stuff from time time. She's a part of what I would call my Facebook tribe, yet I barely know her.

Has this happened to you? You run into someone in physical space that you're friends with in virtual space and you wonder, "should we speak?" Or, better yet, "What the heck is her name?"

It struck me odd that I could be good friends with a person in one space, but that somehow didn't translate to another space. It got me to thinking about how we form connections and tribes in the physical space and the virtual space.

Physical Space

Historically, connections have been formed through:

  1. Family — We generally live with or around family.
  2. Neighbors — We know and interact with those that live nearby, that attend the same school, religious and social functions.
  3. The marketplace — We make money and spend money, and that requires some personal transaction.

Virtual Space

In the virtual space there are no families, neighborhoods or shop-keepers.

"Wait," you say, "I'm Facebook friends with lots of my family, friends and coworkers. And as for shop-keepers, old so-and-so from high school sells Mary Kay on the Facebook, and I'm friends with her too." What I'm saying is that people are not grouped in that manner on social media. (Well, there was that Google+ circles thing, and we all saw how well that turned out).

It's all there in your feed—that lady you met at the annual UIXBPAKLMNOP conference in Milwaukee, your Memaw and your aunt's ex-husband(s). There is one large gate, one separation of wheat and chaff—friend or not. Beyond that distinction, Facebook tribalism is incredibly nuanced. Snootiness is increasingly complex in the digital environment.

I have, on Facebook, what I would call a tribe. Our mediated content creates a mutual resonance. I like their stuff and they like mine.

Tribal observations:

  • These are people that I may see on a daily basis or may not have seen in 10 years.
  • We may or may not be in the same bracket (based on income, education, athletic prowess, etc).
  • Though I know them, I may not engage with them in the physical world.

Let's spend some time mulling over that third bullet point. Are there people that you don't speak to in person but that could be understood, social media-wise, as your best friends? I know this sounds a bit juvenile, but I bet that you have some digi-besties. I know I do. I would also bet that you have some tag-alongs and that you are that pesky tag-along from time to time.

And, before you move on [down the feed], let's talk about affordance of the medium.

It makes perfect sense that people that are captivating in real life would also have an equally engaging social media presence; take my uncle Hugh, for example—a fascinating character in real life which comes through in his FB philosophical musings.

But, it ain't necessarily so...

There is a person (we'll call him Derek?) that I consider to be a bit of an idol. He's a brilliant singer-songwriter, an entrepreneur, a real visionary in many capacities. But, for whatever reason, he stinks at social media.

And inversely, there are some people that in real life I would describe as bland or even socially insignificant, that is, until social media (not gonna mention any names here). Through a broad, yet personal, medium their humor and insights are given the light of day. The medium is affording these people an opportunity, a voice. Granted, in actuality and in reality these people were always important, witty and insightful, but, perhaps, not many people knew about it.

To that person, I say, "Won't you be my neighbor?"