an ode to a math teacher: benevolent dictators and urban tribes

The social network structure of friendship is rarely a bounded group. Even if we are friends, the imagined community of my friends is different than your imagined community. This is why you get these beautiful web-like structures when you model friendship, why the guests of a friend’s cocktail party typically include many people you know and a few that you don’t, and why figuring out the guest list for an event can be a dramatic process. It’d be a lot easier if everyone attending had the same idea of who all should attend wouldn’t it?

Since i’ve been in San Francisco, i’ve been part of a group that could be defined as an “urban tribe.” Urban tribes are particularly funny because they are all about turning a friendship structure into a group structure. Tribes often have a notion of membership but it is often unclear what constitutes membership. Is membership social affinity? Dues? Participation in tribe activities? Is there a “core” group? Is it about housing? Sexual relations? What?

My “urban tribe” has been plagued with the membership question for quite some time now. On one hand, you would think it wouldn’t matter – who cares if Bob and Sue see Sue as a member and Ann doesn’t? Yet, it is technology and the required articulation of groups that torments us. One simple question turns the basic negotiation of friendship into a complete nightmare: who should be on the group’s mailing list?

A mailing list is a group structure – it has boundaries and one is either ‘in’ or ‘out’ – it is not possible to be ‘in’ to some people and ‘out’ to others like it is when you think of ego-centric friendship communities. Of course, with any group, there are members who view other members with disdain and would prefer that they were not also part of the group. This is one of the common features of urban tribes that Ethan Watters describes. Mailing lists push people to think in terms of group structures, even when the social cost is great. Faced with having to resolve this, it shouldn’t be surprising that an urban tribe swings back and forth between seeing itself as a collective with an identity that trumps individual relationships and seeing itself as a group of friends first and foremost.

Think about this for a moment… Remember how difficult it was to decide your Top 8? This required you to personally choose your closest friends and exclaim them for the world to see. Now imagine having to collectively agree with your friends on who should be in each other’s Top 8. Imagine having to say to some of your close friends that they’re not in the collective Top 8 because other people don’t like them enough, don’t feel as though they’re close enough to the center of the group or whatever. This might be cool if the individual thinks of themselves as separate from the group, but if they want to be part of the group, it reeks of middle school clique drama.

My particular urban tribe used to handle this through benevolent dictatorship. The person in charge of the list decided who got to be on the list when. Not surprisingly, people resented this person – they bitched and moaned and questioned the fairness of the process. Luckily, the benevolent dictator’s ego was strong enough and he was central enough to most people that the bitching didn’t really do any damage. Yet, as time passed, folks decided that a democracy would make more sense. The benevolent dictator stepped down and for the last year folks have been trying to figure out how to best handle issues of membership.

Consensus is a mess – it’s quite clear that not everyone likes everyone else. It was much easier when folks felt stuck with the other people and could blame the benevolent dictator. Now that everyone has veto, it’s clear that no one passes the everyone test. Representative democracy is also disastrous because the representatives were trying to be good by everyone and they end up getting resented by everyone and then depressed personally… few people want to attend bureaucratic meetings and even fewer want to be representatives. As time goes on, it becomes quite clear that we were much better off with a self-appointed benevolent dictator with an ego that could handle everyone’s bitching. And besides, people *like* bitching, regardless of who is handling what. That’s the beauty of urban tribes – they run on drama as fuel. Of course, you don’t _elect_ a benevolent dictator so how do you turn back?

What i find most fascinating is that, as the process unfolds, the group-ness is breaking down… the ego-centric community networks are trumping the group-ness and smaller clusters are emerging based on who feels closer to whom. Organizing events continues to bring the group together but efforts at creating democracy tear it apart. To complicate matters, as we get older, it gets harder to do events which makes it harder to have community solidarity. Additionally, folks keep moving away for work or school so there’s geographic and attention splintering and we’ve reached the age where coupling is rampant, making the local networks far more significant than the group networks. I’ve never believed that urban tribes postpone marriage but i do believe that marriage fragments urban tribes.

I don’t know what the answer is but there’s something fascinating about seeing my social life play out some of my research conundrums – namely, how do you resolve group structures and networks? I wonder to what degree has organizational technology like mailing lists and forced people into moving towards a group model… I also wonder if social network sites like MySpace are letting people move back towards a network structure by encourage bulletin postings instead of group membership… I wonder if the next generation won’t have the same sorts of tribe structures because of MySpace… I wonder i wonder i wonder…

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13 thoughts on “an ode to a math teacher: benevolent dictators and urban tribes

  1. magdalenus

    THIS post should be on your Best of list! Great work!

    I have often wondered the same things. How do urban tribes rise and fall without a leader? Can we escape having one? Isn’t a de facto leader essential for a tribe of any kind to form? Even “pre-historic” peoples have tribal elders and leaders. The world is now too complex to merely group together because of geographic proximity. Is it possible to maintain a cohesive group without the dynamic people that serve the roles that make it interesting in the first place: the coodinator, the doer, the drama queen, the dude with the sweet house, the girl in the cool band with the air of fabulousness…

  2. Anonymous Math Teacher

    Interesting to read your analysis of the situation. Here are some other details that might lend nuance to the picture: First, there was never a single benevolent dictator of the mailing list. (Although I was the only one with the password to it for a short time.) The decisions about putting people on and off were always made by a group, usually about 5 people, who would collaborate on additions and removals. Second, in addition to the elements in the community who felt that this power should belong directly to everyone, the small leadership group was also tired of doing those jobs. We were ready to move on to another stage in the lifetime of our organization. So that sets the stage a bit more accurately for the situation you’re describing.

    Being a ‘leader’ in an urban tribe isn’t really about decision-making. People are participating because they want to, because it’s fun, and because their friends are there. Of course some of these people people end up setting the course more often than others. People have different personalities. But it’s been my experience that the course is not set by just telling people what to do. It’s not an employment relationship, and so the concepts of ‘manager’ and ‘director’ don’t really apply. It’s real life, and so if someone appears to be a leader it’s probably because they spend a lot of time doing things for other people, and thinking ahead to what things would be useful and helpful for others. That’s how you get responsibility in a social group or modern urban tribe: by figuring out what is needed by others and doing it, not by having someone elect you or appoint you.

    Anyway, the small group of people who had been filling these leadership roles (perhaps while perceived as a dictator) suggested that others rotate into their positions. We went to great lengths to condense these concepts and propose a structure we thought would work. There were a few voices in the community that opposed this idea, saying that we should not have such a group anymore, but instead a process by which everyone makes these decisions collectively (direct democracy, or full-participation consensus) as opposed to investing anyone with special responsibilities for those decisions (representative democracy or consensus). I thought that was not a good idea, but I also believe that sometimes people have to see something in action to understand how it works. So we went with their idea. After all, if you’re doing the work, then you get to make the calls. That ‘meritocracy’ concept, plus the idea of transparency, are what I think are critical to the functioning of community. We will see where those people are now that their ideas have encountered rough spots. I hope they see it through.

    But any which way, our tribe feels really strong to me right now. We just produced a major event together, probably one of the biggest we’ve ever done. New people integrated with old people. We reached out to other groups, and in to each other. Sub-groups have always been present, and will always be present, and the tribe will continue to evolve. I guess I don’t feel the group-ness breaking down, but I do see people coming and going. What I always wonder about is, will I ever be one of the people who goes? My career change this year was a huge shift, but I still feel my connections to people as deep and strong, and I still like the things we do together. I guess time will tell!

  3. Bob Aman

    I know for sure that marriage and migration have played a big part in the fragmentation of the main “urban tribe” that I’ve grown up in. It’s gotten bad enough that I no longer feel like there’s any point in “membership” at all. Unfortunate, because I am one of the unmarried and unmoving, and I don’t have any good replacements in the way of social interaction. MySpace and company don’t do it for me, and never will. The closest thing I’ve got at this point are the other software developers who work on similar stuff, and the group that meets for ultimate frisbee on Tuesdays. It really sucks.

    Worse, I think it’s very difficult to move from one “tribe” into another one, because unfavorable comparison of the two is inevitable.

  4. Liz Henry

    Coupling screws everything up. We should have individual, flexible space instead and easy co-housing structuring. Architecture built for tribes, not for temporary nuclear families. The social structures are hard to build and maintain without the architecture and legal structures to support them. I know, I just invented the urban kibbutz for the millionth time, but someone’s got to say it.

  5. storygeek

    This post is definitely relevant to situation I am in.

    A little explanation – I am a masters student in a masters program at Ball State university in Muncie, Indiana. “Where?”, you might ask. Muncie is a small city in north-eastern Indiana. There are about 18 people in the program now and with partners and friends our group mails have about 25 people on them. We manage this just with the university email and hitting “reply all”. This of course leads to problems. People being left off or asking to be removed because of traffic on heavy discussions and then not being dropped. I think if I imposed any structure, they would balk at it. We have formed a large cohesive social group that we like. The most pressing issue is we have 18-20 new students coming in this fall and I just don’t think we can have up to 40 on a “reply to all” situation. I would love to have the time to watch what happens but danah’s post definitely has me thinking about it.

  6. Bertil

    Not sure the “top eight” is a necesasary feature: I don’t see it on the other social services I use, and I am happy with it. The ability to comment is a great tool however, and a better indication of closeness: someone who tells private jokes probably knows the person better than someone who use a template message to which a happy Valentine to a bachelor.

    Another clumsy moment with another social software is when to declare how you know your friends (family, school, work, travel. . .): same problem, combined with the fact that you are not willing to mingle your (bizare) workmates with you (dysfunctional) family.

    I very much like you comment on what makes a community, don’t think you need to introduce an fixed frontier to it because there are none: it’s a holistic tool (and holism is morally bad ;^). I’d even say a technology with a “required articulation” is the wrong one if it feels clumsy to you. E-mail or IM do not require a declaration of friendship, so I beleive in a social software that reckon them.

    In a word, I am not sure one should go beyond the Google “Contact” interface that is used for Mail, Talk and Calendar.

  7. Seth

    It would be interesting to have communication tools whose design acknowledged this issue. Imagine a mailing list anyone could join, but any time someone started a new thread, it would only be visible/sent to the people the thread-starter thought should be on the list.

    In some ways that’s like not having a list at all, but if you add some more features, the central management becomes useful: view & browse the membership graph, show people’s memberness rank (as determined by some graph flood-fill or PageRank sort of thing), and allow people to send a message not only to their own list, but to the N-step transitive closure list (to include friends of friends, etc).

  8. Mickbic

    coupling does not have to kill tribe, but often there may be a sense of betrayal if both members of the couple do not also have some sense of on- going committment to tribe, whatever tribe may be.

  9. morganya

    What was the “tribe” before it was called the tribe? I’m pretty sure this isn’t such a new thing; the need for community is as old as humankind. Ad-hoc friends groups are certainly prevalent in teenage circles. Is it just that we’re staying in that so-called “liminal” state longer? Is it that instead of more organized groups, we have ad-hoc groups?

    Thanks for telling about your tribe. Just as a point of comparison (and word of caution in response to a few of the overly-generalizing comments), my “tribe” (whose tenth anniversary party is next month!) has never had leadership struggles, though there are certainly a few people that a few other people actively dislike. The mailing list for my tribe is completely open, but control is exerted on the social level (rather than the legal or technological levels, to divide the field like Lessig does). Interestingly, while the core membership — aside from a few stable people — has cycled through several times as people finish grad school or otherwise move on or away, the tribe still has a characteristic feel, and the type of people attracted to it stay relatively constant, even down to the few quirky medieval literature grad student regulars and the a capella singers. Oh, and “coupling,” and even children, haven’t screwed up my tribe at all. Those surface attributes of tribes can change easily; these groups are still fulfilling the same sorts of underlying human needs even when they seem to take different forms.

  10. arvind

    mailing lists and tribe.nets are, are you point out, consensual reifications of network structure. whatever you wish, because of the consensus formation inherent in these groups, there isn’t any canned leadership solution – it’s purely an assumption that leadership is the problem – and so the choice of a benevolent dictatorship or a democracy or what have you will always be hard to predict, and will depend largely on the group in question.

    on the other hand, how about if we reify the ‘imagined’ in ‘imagined communities’? leave it to individual members to specify their own sets of networks, and let information (gossip, party invitations, what have you) flow through it depending upon the members’ imaginations?

    of course, mailing lists and tribe.nets also assume that a personal network is a relatively stable thing, and so make it hard to form incidental, short term communes..

  11. jim witte

    good thoughts and interesting comments.

    I feel the need to ask the sociological questions? For example. What does it mean for social relationships that our dominant forms of communication technology ‘require’ us to deliberately articulate (reify) our social networks? To what extent is the process of articulating social relationships driven by the commercialization of the technology? How does the F2F variable intervene? Is F2F essential for a tribe?

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