An Ode To a Math Teacher: Benevolent Dictators And Urban Tribes

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by: danah boyd

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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