lessons from native americans and others

I don’t really have time to blog post, but am moved to think by and recommend the talk  What Digital Tribes can Learn from Native Americans. Super discussion focused in part on drawing from what some might feel are “real” tribe examples in order to inform what digital tribes are. Among the speakers Allison Aldridge-Saur (@aldsaur) pulls out several aspects such as ritual, leadership and name-giving, things she has gleaned from her own experience of being a member of a Native American Indian tribe.

As I listened I felt that the concepts/universals of “ritual” and “leadership” were missing an essential piece of the puzzle, and that is the logic of Gift Economy structures which may help negotiate issues of hierarchy or community building. Here is a modified version of the deck.ly tweet I sent as a note, but then decided to pull back and expand to this blog post – this is how blogs work right now for me, places where an idea can breathe.

@aldsaur Still listening to your wshop on Tribes. a note: I think what fleshes out your focus on ritual is that ritual allows us to relocate the places/occasions of repeat reciprocity. Leaders are only those capable of regularly displaying the surplus (gift giving) that drives the ideal example of non-exact repayment, the “gifting” binds the community in positive unpayable debt.#DgtlTribe #usguys

What do I mean by this? Let us assume as a hypothetical starting point that much of what binds tribes in the abstract – whether they be anthropologically recognized native tribes or analogically digital tribes – is a Gift Economy logic, creating a space for gift contesting and status building in the production of a community. If it is the case that many tribal structures are governed by Gift Economy logic (GEL) the two aspects of ritual and leadership become for me a little more clear. Ritual is a way of encoding and compassing occasions of gift exchange reciprocity. This is the “friendly” and unequal donation of valued items (info, yes) which help establish status via the display of surplus, the very unequal exchange that binds the community together through unpayable obligation, positive debt. Ritual allows members to repeat and locate this fundamental continuous act, and thereby re-instantiate the community and their place in it over and over, even down to the level of the gesture – Allison mentions the example of offering #coffee to other #usguys hashtag members on Twitter, a worthy real-world digital illustration.

Where leaders come in – and I part with Allison somewhat in this area I think, especially when thinking about the importance of sovereign-ness, but I’m not sure – these are people who have achieved (or inherited) the status of Gift Givers that more or less regularly symbolize the surplus and donation that secures the bonds of unequal exchange. Leaders indicate ideal action. But the degree of this indication, and the need for a cadre or singularity of such an example (individual or even group name sovereignty) in my mind does not have to be so localized. In the digital realm, what is new is the transient nature of forms in a communication of value, the way that people carry with them between media, between tribes, the history of those micro communities, marrying their future to even newer and different tribes. The hyper-tribe experience.

Strongly recommend the talk. Just put it on in the background like the radio playing, and let the ideas trickle in. Also recommend, as I have to Allison, David Graeber’s book on a theory of value informed by Gift Economy cultures.

Check out Allison’s blog too.


10 thoughts on “lessons from native americans and others

  1. You pack a lot into a post! You have made me think deep and I appreciate that. I doubt I can do it justice in a brief comment, but I will try. i suspect our positions are very close on these points and it is a question of terminology.

    Your point about the Gift Economy is very interesting to me, because when I think of gifting in a traditional tribal sense, it is something you do to honor someone. However, the tribal sense of responsibility toward one another, the sharing of resources for the overall good seems to apply to this Social Media/ new economy ethos of paying it forward. So, for me, the new use of “gift” includes both the idea of honoring someone as well as the sense of responsibility, the pooling of resources.

    I don’t want to slam leaders/leadership. I believe it is critical to understand the new leadership paradigms. However, I do think that digital tribes can and should imagine an existence, an identity beyond a leader. “Real” tribes have thrived and suffered under leaders. The tribal identity endures, the tribe endures. How can digital tribes pull that off? I hope that some of the things I am exploring will support that kind of effort.

    • Allison,

      First I’ll maybe start where we might disagree some and work our way back to common ground which I suspect is very solid. I sensed from your talk – and great event, by the way, thanks for posting it – that your deep embeddedness in your Tribal identity somehow leads you away from what is most fascinating about Digital Tribes. It is the hyper way that they overlap, morph and propagate that seem essential to them. Whereas because of your deep and historically rooted place in your Tribe, a Tribe that has persevered under adverse conditions, your eye may be on other aspects of what define a tribe, its permanence. Strategies for lasting permanence – such a insulation against prevailing cultural tides, strong commitment to passed down ritual – might not (and I say “might”) be the same kinds of focuses that would make a digital tribe survive. Again, I am only with pale, pale cursory awareness of the realities of Native American tribes, but this is the thought I have.

      The reason why I point this possible difference between us out is that I believe that perhaps what allows Digital Tribes to thrive and advance is their mutability, and perhaps even more so the case, the laminate-ability, their ability to layer with all other tribal associations, w/o significant interference. And along with this, I believe, is the way that media themselves must becomes much more permeable, the way that Twitter and FB and gmail and Skype begin to sandwich. So, for me a Digital Tribe – and I would say that this goes for Brands as well – must not only communicate well with an eye across media (when media is changed, commitment grows, I believe), but also to the nesting, the overlap of other Digital Tribes, drawing strength from those built in communication circles and identities.

      What I mean by this is that as a Digital Tribe (Brand?) becomes rooted horizontally instead of vertically (genealogy, specific history) it grows strong but thin. It grows wide and fast. I think this is the landscape of Digtal growth. Perhaps, if this is true, this goes somewhat against the current of what you find most interesting about the use of Tribe to describe Digital packs. Perhaps the biggest question there is the question of Identity. How much of your identity is at stake in a Tribe? I would suggest that while identity is definitely a vector to watch, it could be that with these new tribes it is not the determining factor.

      This being said, I felt that your emphasis on ritual is a huge contribution to the discussion of tribes and how to form or strengthen them. And the #usguys growth is a perfect illustration. I do believe that ritual assurance and direction in terms of repeatable confirming acts, acts that re-enact the values that bond a tribe are essential to all human ties, particular those described as tribes. From my perspective this is under appreciated and can go unseen. I love that you bring that forward.

      And I really enjoy your concept of gifting as honoring. From the Gift Economy perspective (and I hope you look more deeply into Gift Economies from the anthropological pov, as much of the cultural principle is drawn from anthro. studies of Native Americans), when something is shared or donated – in a non-quid-pro-quo fashion – status is given. This is why Gift Economies can actually be extremely competitive, despite their being no exact score card as we appear to have in Market Economies (bank accounts, stock prices). If we focus down on the unit of exchange in Gift Economies, it is a disequal gift that inspires or secures obligation. This gifting is passed back and forth, and each time it is, status moves, and the community is woven deeper in obligation. It is a loom of commitments and values that is very different than pure Market exchanges. I believe that by keeping focus on the nature of this cross-weaving, both rituals and leadership questions become more clear. Rituals (and “honoring” is the passing of obligation back and forth) are the repeat reenactments of donation, and leadership is those who embody the symbolism of surplus that an economy of donation thrives on. At least that is the way I see it. In this way, when status is raised (by honoring), everyone’s status is raised, and this seems essential to how Digital Tribes work too.

      Sorry to be begin with our possible variance. It is how my mind works. I like to start out our most distinct possible disagreement, and find our way home.

      Sorry, my comment is a bit rushed – and long-winded, ha – had to post without review due to time.


  2. Hi Kevin! Thought-provoking post and thanks for alerting me to the What Digital Tribes & Native American Tribes podcast. While i am no expert on Gift Economies, it does strike me that you are right- there is an undercurrent there that is present in both digital and other tribal cultures, particularly in ritual (aka #USguys hashtag coffee givings in the mornings). Toward that, the example given during the podcast discussion of the “over-givers”,
    aka over-enthusiastic community participants who sometimes have to be “time-outted” or temporarily banned is interesting. Thisseems to be a frequent complaint of community managers. It seems we have in a sense of community or tribe a hierarchy of levels of expected giving
    where members are expected to contribute at one lower level and leaders are expected to over-contribute. When a communitymember challenges this- by overcontributing (particularly when they then “shape-shift” and start injecting their ownnon-tribal personal philisophies) this can upset the community.

    I belong to several public and private tribes and I notice
    I keep somewhat of a constant vigilance on my own “level of giving” — and whether it’s appropriate or not. For example- if i were to continue writing out this thought into several paragraphs as a comment inside this blog post – well, that would be “over-giving”, right? ) So too- on Twitter,
    its considered declasse when someone posts tweets in bulk. Similarly, when someone engages me in convos on Twitter, I feel sometimes “a public necessity” to pull back at some point and say, “hey, let’s take this offline” or take the convo to a more private exchange. Early in my twittering, I had an A-lister defollow me as I didn’t sustain an interaction with her and she took offense. I really didn’t
    mean that at all — I just hadn’t learned yet the appropriate level of public giving and thought our one-on-one convo was not of public interest. It’s a difficult balance and i constantly struggle with it!

    • Hey Lisa, so glad to have your thoughts here!

      This really struck me when reading your comment:

      “It seems we have in a sense of community or tribe a hierarchy of levels of expected giving where members are expected to contribute at one lower level and leaders are expected to over-contribute.”

      That is a super point, and not one that I had thought about much at all. There is a definite boundary of knowing what the right about is. Beer-buying (a favorite example) is just like that. The relationship has to develop, you don’t buy 5 rounds of beers when you just meet a group. Fantastic.

      I think this has to do with what donation or gift giving is in Gift Economies – and I too am only just working through the concept. Gift is the display of surplus. It is through the symbolic display of surplus that status is achieved, but also passed to others. For someone new to the Tribe, or in a lower position, an inordinate display of surplus is something to be seriously mistrusted. The reason I suspect for this is that the bonds of repeated commitment, ritualized display have not been enacted. The community fibers are not in place. And this display either suggests a deception (you actually do not have the surplus you are symbolizing, or you have motives that are not to the good of the group). This goes right to your idea of injecting foreign philosophies. Over-givers are those who have not achieved the “place” of the large gift, I suspect. If the quality of what they give is beneficent though, I imagine with time the trust bond build, and the suspicions wane. Over-givers can become significant community members, tho. They indeed “might” have the kinds of surpluses that could really prove vital to the growth of that community, and their instincts for giving “might” be those that ideally match up with the values of what binds a Tribe. They just have to prove themselves, and largely do so through the codifications of proper contribution and respect, often ritualized.

      I enjoy as well as your personal monitoring of giving:

      “For example- if i were to continue writing out this thought into several paragraphs as a comment inside this blog post – well, that would be “over-giving”, right? )”

      Ha. Well, as you can see from my very long response to Allison above, and the length of mine here to you…in this corner of the world, no. But that is because we have a commitment to an idea and discussion in my mind, and as along as the back and forth is dynamic, and everyone gets something out of it, I say write to your hearts content.

      But I am unusual, and definitely am an overcontributor by instinct, largely because I have a surplus of thoughts to work out with others and thirst for their perspective. It comes from my background in Philosophy which is about having extensive conversations with (sometimes dead) people. I prefer to have demi-public conversations because one never knows when an over hearing person jumps in and make a point that changes the entire ideal game. In private discussion, especially on big ideas, there are always moments of agreement that come where others would be really sparked to a new way of seeing things. It is a way of gifting to others. Our discussion here on Digital Tribal or Gift Economies is as much in the hope that others come upon the idea and take it somewhere where we never dreamed, as that either of us come to realize an important principle and really become clear. As I always say, social media is about building Triangles, the 3rd apex of which is often not seen.

      As to the A-lister, our habits and thresholds have a way of self-filtering. And those that make it through the initial test of differences often are those that have the values and interests that will create a relationship of more substance. I’m not saying that initial connections can’t go wrong simply for accidental reasons, and that important futures can’t be lost, but it is more that we all have our tribal histories, our thresholds, and part of what we bring to a new medium, or a new tribe, are these thresholds. We change them out of respect as we learn the customs, but we don’t efface them either. They are our “gift”.

      For instance, your invitation to discuss Gift Economies in a discussion zone on FB is something I never would have thought of. And though I haven’t been able to pulled together enough study time to bring significant Gift Economy analysis along with me to make the discussion substantive yet, the offer (that custom) has definitely made me more aware of how Twitter and other sm media communications can be handled. It has seriously informed me of the dimensions of talking – and something I’m trying to figure out how to take advantage of. I want to brainstorm this idea, across media.

      Along with this, I have to say that I find a perfect triangle here between Digital Tribalism (the role of customs, identities) Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing, and Gift Economy Logic. It feels like a powerful confluence, and I really hope we can make something original and insightful come out of thinking through this.


  3. Ok, have some thoughts to share now 🙂 I absolutely agree with the idea of unequal gifts as perpetuating the tribe, endearing people to it. How can you pay back the welcoming you get at #ringthetribalbell? You can try to message everyone back, individually, but somehow this does not come close to equaling the original gesture.

    All of these strangers welcomed you, introduced you to their friends that they often talk to, and rang a bell for you, and sometimes sent you a link to the gong.

    The only way you can really pay this back, is in kind. You must welcome someone else when they enter the tribe. And even then, the gift economy is not about paying all debts back to reach a balanced scorecard (and this is a main point I am wrapping my head around). Networking, people, relationships are not based on tit for tat, quid pro quo. Friendships are not measured in favors, in how much value a person brought to your life. Friendships enrich our life in ways that can not be measured, but I think the idea of a gift economy comes close to explaining it.

    Thanks Kevin for giving the gift of your ideas to us in the form of this blog. You are perpetuating the knowledge sharing of our tribe, and adding your voice to the collective knowledge building. And, I appreciate the friendship that is being forged as we exchange tweets, posts, and comments.

    • Beautiful, simple example of the #ringthetribebell experience. Not payable, in any sense. For those that are unaware, when being brought in to the #usguys hashtag, a new greeting hashtag produces a community response of welcome that is quite distinct, as Chris describes.

      What I am interested in is that if these unequal exchanges become the very currency and building blocks of a tribe, group (to mix metaphors effectively), then we as social media thinkers and strategists should develop an eye for this, and learn how to structure it so that it can happen for businesses or interest groups. Spaces need to be built with this exchange type in mind.

      It seems like a lot of preliminary work has been done in this area with the lagniappe idea (@9INCHmarketing), but somehow the Tribal aspect, and the question of status passing seems less attended to.

      …sorry to go off in that direction Chris, just thoughts you have sparked. And your welcome friendship has been an unquestionable boon. More gifts passed.

  4. On the beer front, you may be interested that when doing business in Japan, I noticed that when someone pours your beer for you (ritual), that is a great honor (to your identity). I now engage in that custom myself!

  5. Kevin,

    Thanks for opening my eyes to the concept of gift economies and the idea of surplus.

    I look forward to peeling back the onion further to see how the concepts dovetails with marketing lagniappe. I’m curious to examine how giving added value (lagniappe) creates status (brand affinity), obligation (retention) and donation (word of mouth).


    ‘The longest and hardest nine inches in marketing is the distance between the brain and the heart’

    • Wow stan. I like the mapping of the language of marketing onto gift economy type terms. I’ll have to think through that more. I’ve been more focused on the specific kinds of relationships can be made in social media itself. For that reason I perhaps have in mind how spaces (digital) can be made to bring about these kinds of repetitive, bonding actions. I really like the “word of month” as donation idea. Yes, word of mouth, and other more inventive ways of consumer/user donation. It is a new world when we realize that users WANT to donate, when donation is meaningful.

      looking forward to more discussion.


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