The Internet has undergone tremendous transformations since the introduction of the Mosaic browser in 1993 by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). Mosaic, the precursor to Netscape, Internet Explorer, Firefox, and other graphical browsers, opened up the Internet in ways that were never imagined by most of us. Use of the Internet has literally exploded over the past decade, with penetration in the United States estimated as high as 70 percent. One of the auxiliary consequences of the explosion of the Internet has been the radical transmutation of our conceptions of sociability. The Internet has become the site not only for the composition and recomposition of new, intriguing, Internet-specific identities; it has also given vent to the recrudescence of hitherto premodern social formations such as the tribe and all the consequences that come with this.
Electronic tribes have existed since well before the present Internet explosion. Personally, I was involved in an e-tribe, or virtual community, in 1986, nearly a decade before the introduction of Mosaic, which started the present revolution in communication. The e-tribe I was part of at that time was a group of computer and media enthusiasts who connected to each other via a primitive bulletin board system, which ran on a repurposed computer that lived in the dresser drawer of one of the members of the group. I am not sure anyone knows the exact date that online tribes began, but we do know that the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) began in 1985 and continues to this day. The beginnings of the WELL, the development and the problems encountered in its evolution, are well documented in Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community.
Even these early efforts at building community on the Internet are well over ten years after the first introduction of e-mail on ARAPANET and other precursors to the Internet. One of the interesting questions addressed by this volume is, what is an electronic tribe? What is the difference between a tribe and community? And what is "virtual" about these concepts? Webster's online dictionary has a definition of "virtual" that includes existing on a computer network.
In the chapters that follow, you will be exposed to all sorts of electronic tribes, those that exist in e-mail lists with very few members, those that follow the more traditional format of a message board that can be found at the WELL, and even tribes that are less formal than the e-mail lists but use the Internet to accomplish the goals of the group. At the upper end of participation, the reader will encounter MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games), where literally millions of people can interact with each other online.
When I think of tribes, I think of the tribes I encountered in the media of my childhood. These tribes could be either Native Americans or the tribes of Africa. Certainly, to me, a component of this type of tribe was the interdependence among members of these groups. They were often isolated by factors such as geography, language (though, of course, on TV and in the movies everyone spoke English), and dress, and differed from other tribes or larger groups in terms of religion, housing, and worldview. The reader will come away from this book with a better understanding of what a tribe is. How does a tribe differ from a community or a culture? The authors in this book present a variety of approaches to the concept of tribe and explore the ramifications of these approaches.
As the title suggests, the work explores the implications of Internet communication. Just what are we moving toward in terms of human interaction? Is the Internet bringing us closer together or leading us to lives of isolation where our only connection to other human beings is through the pixels on a computer screen? In many ways the Internet seems to be taking us closer to Marshall McLuhan's Global Village, but just what will that Global Village look like? Will the humans come to a greater understanding of each other, developing relationships that span the globe, overcoming the barriers created by cultures, languages, and distance, or will we retreat to tribes of like-minded individuals who, given the marvels of technology, will find it easier to contact each other? Do we reach out and explore new worlds or retreat into imaginary worlds of our own creation? Certainly, we live in an age when it is easier than ever before to be in contact with others, to find friends with whom we have lost touch. But what sort of world does this create? Have we lost privacy because it is now easier than ever before for people to find out where we are and what we do? With even a limited amount of effort, most anyone searching for others can find them. Even those who are not great Web searchers can employ any number of services to this very end. People obviously want to find each other. The popularity of such services as Classmates.com and alumni.net supports this assertion. What of the people who do not want to be found? What many see as a wonderful new world, they may see as a nightmare. To see the dark side of this newfound ability to find out about others, we only need to look to identity theft. Though people have been stealing others' personal information long before the Internet, we now live in a world where we must constantly be aware of the dangers of others trying to use the Internet for nefarious purposes. Chapter 16 of this work takes a look at how an age-old scam has migrated to the Internet. Not a day goes by that most of us don't receive some suspicious e-mail trying to get us to invest in some bogus scheme or phishing for personal information to be used to access our records or bank accounts.
Are we creating an online utopia that will bring us closer together, as suggested by McLuhan? Many of the chapters in this book demonstrate how people are working together, sharing information, and leading happier, more productive lives because of new ways of interacting that the Internet engenders. The opposite side of the coin is that are we just beginning an age of dystopia, as envisioned in movies like the Matrix series or books such a William Gibson's Neuromancer. Again, some of the articles show us a darker side of the uses of Internet communication. Is the Internet more of a threat to our families and our children than comic books, radio, or television? Every medium has both positives and negatives associated with it. What this work does is help us to better understand both sides of the equation.
One of the important concepts that I noted while reading the articles in the book is that the Internet cannot be considered a single medium. The term Internet covers a wide range of communication tools. The Internet provides us with tools that range from purely text-based artifacts such as plain e-mail to multimedia tools that employ audio, video, text, and interactivity in nearly any combination you can dream of. If you have not thought of it, someone will tomorrow. Each of these different media has a unique impact upon how we interact with others. The Internet provides us with a cornucopia of environments for study as well as for personal use. The Internet also provides scholars with a unique opportunity for study because many of the ongoing interactions are archived—whether they were created in discussion boards, e-mail groups, instant messages, wikis, or chat rooms. Never before have scholars had access to so much data created without the intrusion of cameras or observers. While certainly Internet communication is not the same as face-to-face communication, we have been presented with an opportunity to examine the interactions between people in ways never before available. The media are new and different and most certainly influence the interactions. However, because the interactions are often stored, we can examine these new types of interactions in ways we have never been able to examine interactions in the past. Several of the authors make excellent use of the stored interactions, allowing them insight into the lives of people that in the past have been rare at best.
A question raised about Internet communication and Internet relationships is: are they real? Do they have the same value or depth as real-world relationships? Are they just ways to hide from real interaction? The philosophical implications of this question are not easily answered, but I see the Internet as providing more capacity for communication and, as with other media, how it is used is up to the individual. For years, we have been talking about long-distance relationships. As long as there has been mail, people have had pen pals. Are these relationships real? Often, pen pals end up meeting in real life. Some couples survive long-distance relationships, while others do not. Just because we call Internet relationships electronic tribes, virtual communities, online friends, IM buddies, etc., doesn't negate the relationships. The way that we interact with others certainly affects the relationship. Just as many relationships cannot survive a physical separation, I assume that some online relationships could not survive a face-to-face encounter. People who meet online often meet face-to-face. Sometimes, this face-to-face meeting makes the relationship grow stronger; at other times, the face-to-face meeting is a disappointment. Internet communication is just a different way of getting to know people. We are still learning how it works. Certainly many of the people we encounter online will never become part of our physical reality, but that does not mean they don't affect us nor us them.
Even within electronic tribes where people interact with each other in fantasy realms, taking on characters that may transport individuals to places they could never visit in reality, as examined in Chapter 7, on guild life in World of Warcraft, people develop relationships. Are we who we are? The online world gives people the opportunity to try out new selves. Is this dishonest? Certainly it can be. We are shown on an almost daily basis the specter of sexual predators pretending to be someone they are not to lure underage victims into situations where they may prey upon them. On the other hand, who can find harm in a woman, an African American, a young person, or practically anyone else not revealing everything about herself during a discussion in order not to have her words filtered by sexism, racism, ageism or other forms of prejudice? Hiding can be used both for nefarious purposes and for protection.
While we can use Internet communication as a place to hide, it also offers us great freedom to think and express ideas and feelings without being bound by the constraints placed upon us by our physical appearance. Just as mail and shortwave radio in the past gave those physically confined a broader world, the Internet has opened up an even broader world. Anyone can find a place to express ideas, whether popular or unpopular. Electronic tribes exist that have a place for anyone, whether it is for innocent pastimes such as crafting, as in Chapter 6, or the more menacing activities of skinheads, as shown in Chapter 14.
So who is the shaman of the e-tribe? Who is the chief? Who are the warriors? Electronic tribes develop norms, and people take on various roles just as those in real life do in face-to-face interaction. Some electronic tribes have a formal structure with elected leadership and assigned roles just as in formal organizations. Some electronic tribes are merely extensions of existing organizations where the online structure is a carryover from an existing organizational structure. Some electronic tribes are informal communication structures within organizations. Electronic tribes give people a chance to be chiefs or shamans when in real life they are much lower on the organizational chart. The article by Ann Rosenthal addresses how Gerald Phillips became an e-tribal chief without even expecting it to happen. Many people think of Howard Rheingold, the author of The Virtual Community and Smart Mobs, as the guru of electronic tribes. He was most certainly one of the early adopters and chroniclers of the phenomenon. Many people take on roles and head up electronic tribes simply because they have slightly more technical expertise than others. For anyone willing to put out the effort and invest the time, a place exists in the online world. All of us who use the Internet to connect with others and develop relationships owe a debt of gratitude to many people who will probably forever remain unnamed who began this journey and keep pushing it forward.
Allow me to take you on a quick tour of the book. The first section seeks to conceptualize electronic tribes. The chapters in this section investigate just what is a tribe and how electronic tribes differ from other types of online groups, and they begin to look at the potential impact of online tribalism.
The second section deals with the social consequences of electronic tribalism. This section looks at existing electronic tribes on MySpace.com, discussion groups, online games, and mailing lists. This very intriguing section examines how people justify electronic tribes as a means of holding groups of people together despite being separated physically, how people join together based upon interest rather than proximity, and even how some people prefer virtual friendships to real-world friendships.
The third section is concerned with the development of online culture. How do electronic tribes develop norms and rules? How is deviant behavior managed? How do leaders develop online? What is the culture that relates to downloading music?
The final section takes the reader to a darker side of electronic tribes, crime and counterculture. As stated earlier, a place exists for everyone on the Internet. This section looks at the places where some of those people live. How do we manage threats? I think most of you will find it very interesting the origins of the Nigerian scam that most of us have found in our e-mail inboxes at one time or another.
This volume doesn't pretend to investigate every aspect of electronic tribalism, but does offer many different points of view and points the way to a very interesting future for both the online communicator and those investigating that communication. We are no longer tied to just our computers and either a dial-up or an Ethernet connection for participation in electronic tribes. The Internet is now available on many wireless devices—whether a person is sitting at Starbucks with a laptop computer, accessing his or her Blackberry while sitting in the park, or using a cell phone almost anywhere in the world.
We are finding more and more ways of connecting. Groups can be called together at a moment's notice via members' cell phones or through such services as Dodgeball; or you can tag locations to let your friends know about a good restaurant or hotel nearby using Socialight.
Most of us belong to some type of electronic tribe. A tribe may be a simple mailing list of the people with whom we work. This may be no more than a supplement to our face-to-face communication. A tribe may be a group we belong to that plays games. Friends on Facebook constitute overlapping tribes. Friendster even provides charts of how these tribes overlap, giving us instant sociograms of our online world. We may go online to discuss politics or to learn how to arrange flowers. We share bookmarks and create tribes based on similar interests using del.icio.us. The range seems limitless. The variety of modes for communicating is just as varied. We can work online to create content with others through wikis. We can discuss any subject via bulletin boards. We can find love at Match.com. We can use our cell phones to find friends who may be close by. We have entered a world very different from that of just ten years ago. Let's move forward on the journey and explore what the electronic world has to offer.