Tribes: This is Not The Term You Are Looking For

Posted on November 28, 2008. Filed under: Marketing, Observations, twitter | Tags: , , , , , |

Seth Godin’s book Tribes has created a lot of conversation. About the concept, about the content and generally about whether the book is saying anything new or not. As an Anthropology major I was interested in the use of the term Tribe. Originally it was used by the Roman’s to describe the three ethnic groups that formed the early Roman people.

Later it was adopted by, primarily European based colonial expansionist to group native peoples together. Quite often incorrectly, but there was a need to homogenize the previous occupants of desirable land. For that reason alone the term Tribe has both outdated and pejorative connotations.

My disagreement with the use in this context is not only the potentially pejorative nature of the term but the classification is at best a very lose use of the term, perhaps best left for an aside certainly not suitable to build an entire marketing program around.

Why “Tribe” is not the word

The book is aimed at people seeking leadership teaching, and Seth Godin posits that anyone can become and should become a leader of a “tribe”. It his definition of a tribe that I take issue with. The tribes he describes are at most temporary social groups. Church affiliations, groups of friends in a bar etc. These are not “Tribes”.

Tribes have a permanence brought about through a familial connection, a shared ancestry, a shared sense of creation and a sense of reciprocity.

While I can completely support Seth Godin’s observation that some social groups both offline and online demonstrate some of these behaviors, reciprocity, a sense of self as a group. This doesn’t make them a Tribe in the same way that my ability to speak a few sentences of the French language and an enjoyment of Brie doesn’t make me French.

In a recent conversation about this topic on Twitter a fan of the term tried to qualify it by saying that I should “Think of a collegiate atmosphere – when you leave the tribe is still with you.” This typifies my issue with the use of the term. Firstly, this description is uniquely American, primarily due to the Greek system in place at a lot of US universities – it does not exist in other countries. While I can definitely see why Alumni create and maintain long term relationships, they lack either the familial connection or any of the other features of a “tribe”.


What Seth Godin is really describing is the nature of group reciprocity. The sense of a group member being able to call upon other group members for assistance. This is certainly a reason why people become parts of groups. I am the member of several groups that display this advantage, from being a Twitter user through the leadership of a local Chapter of the AMA to being a member of a Search & Rescue team. These groups fulfill different needs in me and I fulfill different roles for the group. But we are not a “Tribe”. We have different lives from each other, they are not the first thought when I think of my “wellness”, though they certainly contribute to my sense of well being.

What I seek, in the 21st century, and from a “leader” like Seth Godin is a reframing of this term. Original thought is what is required of leaders, great examples is what is required of leaders. My favorite description of leadership is from Antoine de Saint Exupéry

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

This is the “Tribe” that Seth Godin is referring to, the group that shares that common longing for an jointly perceived outcome.

Do I have a better word than “Tribe”? I have several but what would you call this collective?

Cover via Amazon
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One Response to “Tribes: This is Not The Term You Are Looking For”

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As always, a wonderful thought out well-intune dissertation from you Simon. This is a great addition to the point i make in Instead of reusing antiquated misplaced words, a leader such as Seth Godin should be coming up with new words that adequately encompass all of the shades of meaning that a leader led group dynamic describes.

My article “Hardcore as Social Media Model” ( ) is a much more apropos description of how a dynamic group functions. A leader is “The Band” who orchestrates the movements & sets the mood. There could be a show without a band, probably have recorded music- but such show wouldnt be the same without the leader. Just as important, there are sometimes many “bands” at the show, either all of equal billing or one headliner. Continuing with this train of thought, I as a participant will go to many different shows with many different acts & attendees. The essential feeling & operation is the same, but the experience is different. Just because you are one thing one time does not mean you will be that same thing to others the next time. Thinking this to be true is the definition of madness.

Maybe we should be taking the new definition of a “tribe” from the Hardcore scene, because this is my ultimate model for a dynamic group.

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