Tribe has become a popular social media marketing term that just hints at a deeper human experience. A look at Native American tribal characteristics reveals substantive practices that build stronger, more fulfilling and highly committed online communities.

We had a chance to interview Allison Saur about her upcoming research for Digital Vision. She will be creating a series of articles that will set the tribal reference, define the role this plays in a digital community and illustrate current examples of these practices at work in communities.

Allison has worked in the high tech and web field for 12 years. As a member of the Chickasaw Nation, she jumped at the chance to leverage Digital Media to support the tribal business initiatives that fund services for Chickasaw and Native Americans.

Why were you inspired to research the meaning behind Tribe?

It started as a question about the definition of tribe and how it relates to communities and a social media world. At the time, I was feeling inundated by the word Tribe as it was being used vacuously. There was a deeper promise to it that wasn’t being explored.

I returned to my own tribe and I was on a personal journey thinking about what tribe meant to me. I am urban and this is really rural but these two things were colliding. If there is enough impetus for me to relocate to be a part of my tribe, there must be a lot more in this word then as it is used in social media.

Why do we need a new definition?

If I thought there was already definition, then I wouldn’t have done this. Seth Godin’s definition of tribe is about leadership.  Read about start-up tribes and it’s all about archetype. It’s still valuable but if you are a part of or leading a community and thinking about multi-generational loyalty, then it’s not about archetypes and leadership.

It’s easy to distil out examples from Native American tribes but it’s really about core human needs. Deadheads and bikers, for example, are not Native American tribes but as a community, they have the similarities of a multi-generation tribe.

I’m seeing that ritual comes and then there is a meaning put to it. It’s hard to give up ideas on this is how “we” do it which is why groups can get so upset when something changes. This is true to both on and offline communities.

What has been inspiring different avenues of your research?

I recently watched a Royal Society of the Arts talk given by David Birch in the UK. He was talking about the demise of cash in a world of a million currencies. This led me to think of the currency of tribes. Those trying to create strong communities need to look down the pipe. I returned to my tribe to create wealth for it by creating services that can be shared. In strong communities, there can be a real material value exchange and a reliance on one another. You see trades going on but wouldn’t it be great if there was a credit you can earn that you can exchange or that can be created on a marketplace. It would be a multidirectional exchange and could be a new form of currency.

For example my cousin had a Guild in Everquest for 10 years and the members have met twice a week since they started without fail. Gaming and guiding communities are really interesting as they are moving beyond the game itself. Real world support is happening. One of the members is a lawyer and he helped someone through a nasty divorce and there have been times Guild members have showed up at a hospital before family members have. There is a reliance on each other. Even though we have new technology, it’s going to take us back to what used to be.

What should companies consider when creating online communities?

There are a few key things to think about:

There is a casino in California that has a community but it’s not the name of the casino, it’s their own name. This will give them a sense of their own community. It’s important to give people names and not just titles. In most Native American tribes you get your own name and if you leave that group, you leave that name.

You can have ritual around the strangest things. You are an insider if you comment on the ritual so look at insider language. As a community sponsor, you got to keep looking for this type of language. There is a natural inclination to create it yourself but it’s not up to you. You have to make sure naming resonates with the group.

When managing communities, think of yourself as an anthropologist of your community. You plant and watch seeds grow. By supporting and acknowledging, it gives weight to move the community forward.

You need to have a higher degree of transparency in governance and power. People want to know where they stand. Leaders change so it’s a danger to have it focus on a single person. Look to clans as an example – there is leadership in every subgroup – it’s about driving consensus. Based on merit and raised on consensus building.

Currency and loyalty models
When you’re in a community, you are going to do more to make sure it works as you are tied to its success. So you use your time and resources to make a better a community.

What about responsibility?

A lot of businesses are thinking about communities as a marketing function. They are still on one street. Do you like our product? If you do, we are going to give you some free stuff.

Once a community becomes self-aware, they are going to survive the turnover of everything in your company and the gravitas of the community will grow. So governance models become critical. Who owns and who leads? Are there contingency plans?

It’s very new territory and it’s awesome for brands that communities will have longevity. There is also a threat as it lives outside a corporate structure. It will be an interesting shift for brands and it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of when.