Tribe (Internet)

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A social network diagram displaying tribes clustered by friendship ties among a set of Facebook users.

The term tribe or digital tribe[1] is used as a slang term for an unofficial community of people who share a common interest, and usually who are loosely affiliated with each other through social media or other internetmechanisms. The term is related to "tribe", which traditionally refers to people closely associated in both geography and genealogy.[2] Nowadays, it looks more like a virtual community or a personal network and it is often called global digital tribe. Most anthropologists agree that a tribe is a (small) society that practices its own customs and culture, and that these define the tribe. The tribes are divided into clans, with their own customs and cultural values that differentiate them from activities that occur in 'real life' contexts. People feel more inclined to share and defend their ideas on social networks than they would dare to say to someone face to face. For example, it would be ridiculous to ‘poke’ someone in real life.[3]


The term "tribe" originated around the time of the Greek city-states and the early formation of the Roman Empire. The Latin term, "tribus" has since been transformed to mean, "A group of persons forming a community and claiming descent from a common ancestor" (Oxford English Dictionary, IX, 1933,p. 339, as cited in Fried, 1975, p. 7). As years passed by, the range of meanings have grown greater, for example, "Any of various systems of social organization comprising several local villages, bands, districts, lineages, or other groups and sharing a common ancestry, language, culture, and name" (Morris, 1980, p. 1369). Morris (1980) also notes that a tribe is a "group of persons with a common occupation, interest, or habit," and "a large family."[2] Vestiges of ancient tribe communities were preserved in both large gatherings (like football matches) and in small ones (like church communities). Even though nowadays the range of groups referred to as tribal is truly enormous, it wasn't until the industrial society eroded the tribal gatherings of more primitive societies and redefined community. However, the existence of social media as we know it today is due to the post-industrial society that has seen the rapid growth of personal computers, mobile phones and the Internet. People now can collaborate, communicate, celebrate, commemorate, give their advice and share their ideas around these virtual clans that have once again redefined the social behaviour.[3]

The first attempt of such social communities dates back to at least 2003, when was launched. starting point[edit]

Tribe Networks is the driving force behind,[4] which is a website similar to other social networking sites. Users can create their own profiles and join networks, called ‘tribes’, based on common interests. Moreover, members can post job offers and event recommendations.[5] Tribe serves 50 metropolitan markets, its largest being the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York City. The firm was found in July 2003 by Mark Pincus, Paul Martino and Valerie Syme, with the goal of connecting local people for what Pincus described as "an online cocktail party where people are getting leads through their friends. So people are there to have fun and connect and meet new people." Soon the site caught the attention of Knight Ridder, The Washington Post Company and blue chip venture firm Mayfield, which both totally invested around $6.3 million in venture capital. After three months of activity, Tribe brought together 48,000 registered users and 6,900 distinct tribes, earning revenue from job postings and class fields.[6]

Tribes from a technical perspective[edit]

Not only do Twitter tribes have mutual interests,[7] but they also share potentially subconscious language features as found in the 2013 study by researchers from Royal Holloway University of London and Princeton. Dr. John Bryden from the School of Biological Sciences at Royal Holloway states that it is possible to anticipate which community somebody is likely to belong to,[8] with up to 80 percent accuracy. This research shows that people try to join societies based on the same interests and hobbies. In order to achieve this, publicly available messages were sent via Twitter to record conversations between two or more participants. As a result, each community can be characterised by their most used words. This approach can enrich new communities detection based on word analysis in order to automatically classify people inside social networks. The methods of identification of tribes relied heavily on algorithms and techniques from statistical physics, computational biology and network science.[9][10][11]

An in-depth look into the research[edit]

The research had four main stages on which it focused: background, results, conclusions and methods.[9][12]


The language is a system of communication consisting of sounds, words, and grammar, or the system of communication used by people in a particular country or type of work.[13] Language is perhaps the most important characteristic that distinguishes human beings from other animals.[14] In addition, it has a wide range of social implications that can be associated with social or cultural groups. People usually group in communities with the same interests. This will result in a variation of the words they use because of the differentiation of terms from each domain. Therefore, the hypothesis of this study would be that this variation should closely match the community structure of the network. To test this theory, around 250,000 users from the social networking and microblogging site Twitter were monitored in order to analyse whether the groups identified had the same language features or not. As Twitter uses unstructured data and users can send messages to any other users, the study had to be based on complex algorithms. These algorithms had to determine the word frequency inside messages between people and make a link to the groups they usually visited.[9][12]

Results and discussion[edit]

Communication between and within tribes of Twitter users clustered based on word usage. Tribes tend to communicate more within than between themselves.

The problem of detecting the community features is one of the main issues in the study of networking systems. Social networks naturally tend to divide themselves into communities or modules.[15] However, some world networks are too big so they must be simplified before information can be extracted.[16] As a result, an effective way of dealing with this drawback for smaller communities is by using modularity algorithms in order to partition users into even smaller groups.[15] For larger ones, a more efficient algorithm called 'map equation' decomposes a network into modules by optimally compressing a description of information flows on the network.[16] Each community was therefore characterised according to the words they used the most, based on a ranking algorithm. To determine the significance of word usage differences, word endings and word lengths were also measured and showed that the pattern found was the correct one. Moreover, these studies also helped in predicting community membership of users, by comparing their own word frequencies with community word usage. This helped in forecasting which community a certain user is going to access based on the words that they are using.[9]

The proportion of users whose topological community association is correctly predicted by the study.


An illustration of the method for predicting which community a user is embedded in.

The aim of this research was to study the bond between community structure in a social network environment and language use within the community. The striking pattern that was found suggests that people from different clans tend to use different words based on their own interests and hobbies.[10] This study can show how people make friends based on the same vocabulary range that they use.[8] Even though this approach didn't manage to cover all people inside Twitter, it has several advantages over ordinary surveys that cover a smaller scale of groups: it is systematic, it is non-intrusive and it easily produces large volumes of rich data. Moreover, other cultural characteristics can be found out when extending this study. For example, whether individuals that belong to multiple communities use different word sets in each of them.[9][12]


A process called snowball-sampling helped forming the sample network.[12] Each user's tweets and messages were recorded and any new users referenced were added to a list from where they were picked to be sampled. Messages that were copies have been ignored. In order to find out the words that characterise each clan, the fraction of people that use a certain word was compared with the fraction of people that use that word globally. The difference between communities has also been measured by comparing the relative word usage frequency.[9] Last but not least, individual word usage was compared with each community word usage to pick the best matching clan for individual users.[8]

Different language misspellings within tribes[edit]

Words, and the way we spell them are in a continuous change, as we find new ways to communicate. Despite the fact that traditional dictionaries don't take into account the changes, online ones have adopted many of them.[17] An interesting fact outlined in the research above is that communities tend to use their own misspelt words. According to Professor Vincent Jansen from Royal Holloway communities would misspell words in different ways, just as people have different regional accents.[11] For example, Justin Bieber fans tend to end words in 'ee' as in 'pleasee', while school teachers tend to use long words. Moreover, the largest group found in the study was composed of African Americans who were using the words 'Nigga', 'poppin' and 'chillin'. Members of this community also had the common habit of shortening the ends of the words, replacing 'ing' with 'in' or 'er' with 'a'.[10]

The campfire[edit]

Each tribe has an online-platform (such as Flickr or Tumblr), called campfire around which they gather. These campfires tend to enable one or more of the following three tribal activities:[1]

However, some brands are building their own tribes around platforms outside of these.


Cooperation is the action of working together to the same end.[18] Cooperation developed naturally over time, as it helped companies to streamline their research costs and to better answer to users' requirements. As a result, nowadays organisations are looking for flexible structures that can easily adapt to this rapidly changing environment. Groupware systems perfectly cater to these needs of companies. Informal communication predominates and specialists in certain domains exchange their experience with other people within the groupware environment. Collaboration and cooperation are available through instant messages; people can discuss, chat and swap ideas.[19] Moreover, people can work together while they are located remotely from each other.[20] Groupware can be split into three categories: communication, collaboration and coordination, depending on the level of cooperation and technology involved in the process.[21] One of the biggest and well-known cooperation software is Wikipedia.

The logo of Wikipedia


Wikipedia is a collaborative software because anyone can edit it. You can edit articles, view past revisions and discuss through a forum the current state of each article. Due to the fact that anyone can change it and find information very quickly, it has become one of the 10 most accessed sites on the Internet.[22]


Wikipedia has many advantages over other encyclopedias:[22][23]

  • It's free and open for anyone on the Internet;
  • All past edits and chats from the forum are public and everyone can see them;
  • Updates happen frequently;
  • It contains millions of articles;
  • Easy to use and learn;


However, there are also some drawbacks:[22][23]

  • Information can be inaccurate;
  • It is open to SPAM and vandalism;
  • Some articles can contain omissions and be hard to understand;
  • It can be too open sometimes (for confidential documentation);
  • It requires Internet connectivity;


Communication is the act or an instance of communicating; the imparting or exchange of information, ideas, or feelings.[24] Communication has drastically changed over time and social networks have changed the way people communicate.[25] Even though people can interact with each other 24/7, there is a new wave of barriers and threats. In the workplace environment, electronic communication has overtaken face-to-face and voice-to-voice communication by far. This major shift has been done in advantage of Generation Y, who prefer instant messaging than talking directly to someone. It is often said that it could become an ironic twist, but social media has the real potential of making us less social.[26] However, there are studies that confirm that people are becoming more social, but the style in which they interact with each other has changed a lot. One of the major drawbacks of social networks is privacy, as people tend to trust others more rapidly and send more open messages about themselves. As a result, personal information can be easily exposed to other persons.[27] Twitter and Facebook are two of the biggest social networks in the world.

The Facebook logo


Facebook is currently the largest social network in the world with more than 1 billion people using this website. This actually means that one in seven people on Earth use Facebook.[28] Facebook users share their stories, images and videos in order to celebrate and commemorate events together. They can also play social games and like other Facebook pages.[3] Moreover, there is also a section called 'News Feed' where users can see social information from their friends or from the pages that they liked or shared. Each user has their own profile page that is called 'wall', where they can post all the above-mentioned materials (their friends can do this as well).[29] The biggest advantage of Facebook is that you can make new friends, as well as find old acquaintances and restart socialising with them. One of the most useful feature of Facebook is the existence of groups. Users with the same interests can create a new group or take part in already existing ones to debate information and exchange their ideas. However, there are also groups that are created to declare an affiliation, such as an obsession for different subjects.[30]

The Twitter logo


Twitter is another social network that allows users to send and read short messages called 'tweets'. Even though messages can contain only 140 characters, this is the perfect length for sending status updates to followers.[31] The main advantage of Twitter is that people can gain followers quickly and share ideas and links very fast. There are networks of influential people who can be connected via Twitter.[32] In Twitter, tribes manifest themselves as followers of either a person, a company or an institution. As a result, it can be used as a marketing tool to make someone's product visible,[33] on condition that a big tribe of followers is created. In order to do this, the right community must be built, as finding the right people can be a challenge.[34] There are some steps that users could take into account in order to make connections and therefore make people follow them: search using Twitter search, follow the followers of other users, look at Twitter Lists, use #Hashtags and find third-party programs.[32]


Cognition is the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience and senses.[35] People like to share their ideas and gather together via blogs. A blog is an online journal where people express themselves and want to get their voice heard. People tend to frequent blogs communities due to the fact that they offer specific information in which the reader is interested.[36] There are also business blogs that can be used to share information within a company. These can be used as a flexible medium, where employees can be informed about topics that can range from the use of new technology to the company policies.[37] On blogs, people tend to gather in tribes or clans if they find information that can satisfy their interests. In order to accomplish this goal, bloggers title their postings in such way that they can catch people's attention.[38] The biggest advantage of blogs is that bloggers tend to help each other when someone feels at a loss due to the fact that some bonds might have been created inside the community.[39]

A conclusion on why tribes needed to evolve[edit]

First of all, it was due to the fact that the Internet appeared. As Seth Godin states, "The Internet eliminated geography".[1] People join tribes or clans because they find and share the same ideas with other people that basically have the same interests.[7] The main disadvantage of old tribes is that they couldn't influence group behaviour. On the other hand, new tribes are self-sustaining and can survive without a leader, they are not necessarily dialogue based and they are long lasting. As it has been demonstrated within this article, tribes have influenced the way languages, organisations and cultures work.[1] They have redefined old concepts with the help of social media and have changed the way people will interact in the future.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "Digital Tribes - Creating Behaviour Change in Users - The UX Review". The UX Review. Retrieved 2015-11-01. 
  2. ^ a b "Tribes and Tribal: Origin, Use, and Future of the Concept". ResearchGate. Retrieved 2015-11-02. 
  3. ^ a b c d "Learning with 'e's: Global digital tribe". Retrieved 2015-11-02. 
  4. ^ "". Retrieved 2015-11-02. 
  5. ^ "Why did (Mark Pincus) not work out? - Quora". Retrieved 2015-11-02. 
  6. ^ Pasiuk, Laurie (2006-01-01). Vault Guide to the Top Internet Industry Employers. Vault Inc. ISBN 9781581313840. 
  7. ^ a b Cragg, Michael. "The rise of the Twitter tribes". the Guardian. Retrieved 2015-11-01. 
  8. ^ a b c "Which Twitter tribe are you? Researchers discover new wave of online communities which even have their own languages". Mail Online. Retrieved 2015-11-02. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f Bryden, John; Funk, Sebastian; Jansen, Vincent AA (2013-02-25). "Word usage mirrors community structure in the online social network Twitter". EPJ Data Science 2 (1): 3. doi:10.1140/epjds15. ISSN 2193-1127. 
  10. ^ a b c Rodrigues, Jason. "Twitter users forming tribes with own language, tweet analysis shows". the Guardian. Retrieved 2015-10-31. 
  11. ^ a b "People with same interests or occupation form 'tribes' on Twitter | Latest News & Updates at Daily News & Analysis". dna. Retrieved 2015-10-31. 
  12. ^ a b c d "Word usage mirrors community structure in the online social network Twitter - Springer". doi:10.1140/epjds15. 
  13. ^ "language Meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary". Retrieved 2015-10-31. 
  14. ^ "The Mystery of Human Language | The Institute for Creation Research". Retrieved 2015-10-31. 
  15. ^ a b Newman, M. E. J. (2006-06-06). "Modularity and community structure in networks". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103 (23): 8577–8582. doi:10.1073/pnas.0601602103. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 1482622. PMID 16723398. 
  16. ^ a b " - publications". Retrieved 2015-10-31. 
  17. ^ "Misspellings show language’s evolution, but does that mean they’re OK for journalists to use? | Poynter.". Retrieved 2015-10-31. 
  18. ^ "cooperation - definition of cooperation in English from the Oxford dictionary". Retrieved 2015-11-01. 
  19. ^ F, Tiako, Pierre (2009-03-31). Software Applications: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications. IGI Global. ISBN 9781605660615. 
  20. ^ "What is groupware? - Definition from". SearchDomino. Retrieved 2015-11-01. 
  21. ^ "Groupware: Communication, Collaboration and Coordination". 2011-07-13. Retrieved 2015-11-01. 
  22. ^ a b c "Using the Web to Get Stuff Done: What is Wikipedia?". Retrieved 2015-11-01. 
  23. ^ a b "The Advantages and Disadvantages Of Using Wikipedia For Research - Youth Village". Youth Village. Retrieved 2015-11-01. 
  24. ^ "Definition of "communication" | Collins English Dictionary". Retrieved 2015-11-01. 
  25. ^ Maggiani, Rich (2014). "Social Media and Its Effect on Communication" (PDF). Solari Communication. Retrieved 1 November 2015. 
  26. ^ "Is Social Media Sabotaging Real Communication?". Forbes. Retrieved 2015-11-01. 
  27. ^ "Social Media and Interpersonal Communication". Retrieved 2015-11-01. 
  28. ^ Elgot, Jessica. "From relationships to revolutions: seven ways Facebook has changed the world". the Guardian. Retrieved 2015-11-01. 
  29. ^ Ryan, Jennifer Anne (May 2008). "The Virtual Campfire: An Ethnography of Online Social Networking". Wesleyan University. Retrieved 1 November 2015. 
  30. ^ "The Group Dilemma". Retrieved 2015-11-01. 
  31. ^ "New user FAQs". Twitter Help Center. Retrieved 2015-11-02. 
  32. ^ a b "Twitter: Top 5 Ways to Find Your Tribe". The Book Designer. Retrieved 2015-11-02. 
  33. ^ Media, Jeff Bullas-90 Comments Categories: Social; Marketing, Social Media. "How to Build a Targeted Twitter Tribe of 100,000". Jeffbullas's Blog. Retrieved 2015-11-02. 
  34. ^ "How to Build Your Twitter Tribe". Social Media Examiner. Retrieved 2015-11-02. 
  35. ^ "cognition - definition of cognition in English from the Oxford dictionary". Retrieved 2015-11-02. 
  36. ^ "What Is a Blog? - Blog Basics". Blog Basics. Retrieved 2015-11-02. 
  37. ^ "Help - IBM Connections". Retrieved 2015-11-02. 
  38. ^ "Medical Web Design | Medical Marketing | Medical Web Development". Retrieved 2015-11-02. 
  39. ^ says, Find a Tribe-Kirsten Oliphant. "Blog Tip Friday: Create your blogging tribe". Honest Mom. Retrieved 2015-11-02. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Cory Doctorow, Eastern Standard Tribe, TOR, 1 March 2004, ISBN 0-7653-0759-6
  • Seth Godin, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, Portfolio Hardcover, 16 October 2008, ISBN 1-59184-233-6
  • John Briden, Sebastian Funk, Vincent AA Jansen, Word usage mirrors community structure in the online social network Twitter, 25 February 2013, ISSN 2193-1127