In My Tribe
The book Electronic Tribes: The Virtual Worlds of Geeks, Gamers, Shamans, and Scammers is the latest addition to a growing field of social inquiry that examines the rapidly changing dynamics behind new media. Even The New York Times Magazine recently spotlighted the phenomenon with the article, “I’m So Totally Digitally Close to You.” If more academics and journalists are jumping on this bandwagon, it’s partly because we’re curious and anxious. After all, how is this never-ending blitz of information and social obligations changing our lives? What is gained and lost? When does the relentless immediacy of cell phones, text messages, wikis, blogs, and emails result in brain drain?
The speed of social change is dizzying. As the book’s editors, Tyrone L. Adams and Stephen A. Smith, write: “We can work online to create content with others through wikis. We can discuss any subject via bulletin boards. We can find love at Match.com. We can use our cell phones to find friends who may be close by. We have entered a world very different from that of ten years ago.” Philip K. Dick and Aldous Huxley imagined the perils of these technologically superconnected times as dystopias. Electronic Tribes doesn’t pass judgment. Instead, the book attempts to document and clarify the social shifts associated with living digitally with a collection of sixteen essays. Far-reaching and provocative, the book’s essays produce an extraordinary collection that tackles the online lives of a craftoholic (“Don’t Date, Craftsterbate”), hardcore gamers (“World of Warcraft”), spiritual seekers (“Digital Dreamtime, Sonic Talismans: Music Downloading and the Tribal Landscape”), and cyberhaters (“Brotherhood of Blood: Aryan Tribalism and Skinhead Cybercrews”). The range of material is nuanced and exciting. Yet, as often happens with ambitious collections, the breadth comes at the expense of depth.
Still, capturing the development of online culture is a tricky task given how we’re still creating the Internet. Indeed, the editors of Electronic Tribes are already working on a follow-up book, potentially called Electronic Tribes 2.0. After reading their first take, it’s easy to see why they’re racing to print a second edition. Online communities and generally accepted netiquette change fast and Electronic Tribes omits broader analysis of today’s most popular social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter in favor of yesterday’s hotspot, MySpace. Some essays read like first drafts. Yet despite its inherent limitations, Electronic Tribes raises key sociological questions concerning our privacy-deficient lives and complex online relationships that serves to reveal how much the Internet is changing us.
As academics tend to do, the editors spend many lugubrious pages justifying their use of the world “tribe”. In the simplest of terms, “electronic tribes” are synonymous for “online communities” of like-minded people who are unfettered by space or place. Most importantly, in the virtual world, people form an affinity around an idea. By studying electronic tribes, the editors let us know we’re in a period of profound long-term social change. This broad central theme acts as the book’s pulse.
For their part, contributors use the first-person to explain how the Internet has changed their lives for better or worse. Others adopt a first-person, academically rigorous approach such David R. Dewberry’s “Theorizing the E-Tribe on MySpace.com.” Dewberry focuses on MySpace because it is, as he says, the “most prolific and salient” of the social networking sites. Given Facebook’s rise in popularity in the last year, that statement is probably no longer true. Dewberry supports his arguments by drawing upon the social learning theories of Jean Lave and Etienne Wegner as well as citing the theory of “strong and weak ties.” He argues that MySpace is making the world flat because it changes the rules of “communicative engagement” and the prominence of proximity because MySpace lets us form groups with ease. Dewberry seems awed by the positive aspects of MySpace because it allows him to stay in touch with friends who have moved to different parts of the world. That might be true and swell, but I wish he added more to the discussion than an academic rehashing of the basic precepts, concepts and definitions of social theory. After all, what is lost when we no longer communicate face-to-face? What happens to online relationships when we get bored with the thing that brought us together?
Michael C. Zalot discusses some of the limitations of our “brave new virtual world” in “Digital Dreamtime, Sonic Talismans: Music Downloading and the Tribal Landscape.” Yet, for the most part, Zalot devotes his essay to the notion of “Dreamtime” as understood by Aboriginal Australians. He discusses how the Internet is a “giant database of songs” that can simultaneously operate as a source of spirituality. In Zalot’s world, iPods operate as talismans. The essay also acts as a caution against technological illusions. Zalot, in a brief last word, makes an intriguing link with Huxley’s Brave New World. These final thoughts produce one of the book’s standout moments. But perhaps under the gun of deadline, Zalot’s last argument feels rushed. It’s a shame.
Despite the various subcultures that Electronic Tribes explores, the collection feels undeveloped. Essays feel unfinished. Topics seem limited. It’s curious why the book shies away from talking about adolescent use of the Internet and skips over the marketing consequences of today’s networking sites. After all, a big part of what’s happening is that the Internet is becoming as much of a social phenomenon as a commercial boon.
Guess we’ll have to wait for E-Tribes 2.0. After all, with online culture, there remains a lot left for us to study and do.