thoughts on social media

One of my earliest forays into the world of online social media or networking was a site called Tribe. I got involved with Tribe in late 2003 or early 2004, quickly made a lot of online friends that turned into real-world friends, and after a year or two, lost interest in the site, became distracted by other interests, and let my profile collect digital dust.

Tribe’s social networking model was very different from Facebook’s or Twitter’s. Whereas the lion’s share of what one posts on the later is public (or “public” to the people within your circle of friends), the vast majority of what you could do within Tribe was constrained to “tribes” — discussion-forum-esque groups one could join and engage in conversation with others. Over time, one’s personal profile became more elaborate and, like a Facebook profile, they, too, became a locus of activity. But, back when I was active, nearly all activity happened within tribes. And tribes had various levels of openness, from completely private and invitation-only to completely open to everyone on the network.

The hey-day of my activity on Tribe was during the 2004 United States presidential election. As you can imagine, there were dozens of tribes dedicated to the topic where people from all over the political spectrum debated the issues, defended their chosen candidates, and attacked the minutia of others’ opinions. In this midst of all this debate emerged one fellow who took up an extreme, right-wing position on just about anything. He attracted a lot of attention, both negative and positive, and along with some other conservative friends started other tribes dedicated to their causes and points of view. (One of these folks was particularly fond of what could only be described as low-brow humor. I believe he started a tribe dedicated to “camel toes,” for example, a tribe that successfully overlapped a racial slur for people of Middle Eastern descent with with various photos of women’s below-the-waist wardrobe malfunctions and was thus both deeply misogynistic and racist.)

One of my Tribe-friends was a left-leaning, Stanford graduate student in the sciences. And one day he announced to us in private that the conservative rabble-rouser wasn’t a real person. My Stanford friend had made him up, created a false account, created an elaborate back-story for this person, and then went around Tribe starting arguments with people with the express purpose of challenging other liberals to defend and explain their positions more clearly. On the one hand, it was a brilliant ruse. On the other, it exposed one of the fatal flaws and best features of Tribe: anyone could make up an account, a personality, an identity, a whole person completely divorced from reality. In short, a “person” who existed only within the network of Tribe.