Events in Boston last week illustrate how technology shapes our personal identity. And how little we understand the process. Boston shows us a foretaste of the new tribalism that relies on ephemeral situations and adrenalin to create a sense of belonging. It will change what it means to be an American.
First, the definitions. We’ll start with new tribalism: an individual’s sense of self, belonging and loyalty. They’re defined by participating in communal activity responding to an ad hoc event or crisis. Here, it’s a new tribe following a terrorist bombing. This new tribe’s values can saturate or supplement traditional ones – at least temporarily.
Doubtlessly you are already asking, ‘Is it really new’? Rallies, concerts and civic festivals might be seen as the forerunners to today’s phenomenon. Certainly, the German regime designed mid 1930s Party rallies for this explicit purpose. Religious practice (which the regime studies and copied, per the discussions with Speer) a more structural, embedded variant. The now trite ‘happenings’ and ‘sit ins’ in the 1960s, as well as mass spectacles of Woodstock, etc. reflect better the ad hoc nature of contemporary on-line new tribalism.
Online tribalism marked one of the first defining characteristics of the then emerging digital space narrowly from 1970s thru the 1980s, and then in mass fashion after the mid 1990s. Moveon.org began as a petition to interrupt the late 1990s impeachment drive. Anonymous, OWS and others showed what more purposeful action can trigger more recently in social settings. For our purposes, a new tribe is distinct from committed, long term engagement to a protracted real world issue. It’s best seen as an adrenaline-based flash mob qua ad hoc join in with the added consequence of effecting events themselves.
An ad hoc new tribe is further distinguished by its broad demographic reach. Although narrower than the mono culture broadcast medium, new tribes feature a wide base of age, gender, party affiliation cohering around an event – usual (but not always) a crisis. Unlike pre-existing, committed single issue groups, a new tribe is both hampered by its ad hoc qualities and given great impact by its reach. A defining characteristic? The ad hoc quality is masked by a seeming interactivity – an immersion that transcends passive concerts or stadium rallies (even VR enhanced as of this date).
Our new tribalism builds upon all the isms of our past. Everyone brings with them our concentric relationship overlays. The strongest origins of identity are from our basic human experience: from family, region to nationality/State. Secondly, abstract allegiances kick in – ideological and religious templates such as secular belief systems, liberal capitalism, fascism, Leninism/Maoism and various offshoots in current American political discourse.
Think of the relationship circles radiating outward here: friends, Watertown, Boston, Mass and its schools, New England, U.S. overall. Joining this tribe yielded the largely emotional and celebratory “We are all Bostonians now” from several continents. A White Ford Bronco chase times 1,000.
The new tribe had a distinct ethos and goal. And celebrated upon success. Identity is more important than mere process. As is the ephemeral nature of the tribe until the next crisis. Thus, we make a distinction with those who focus on process and the hive mind.
On its face Boston’s new tribe didn’t cause too much trouble. The new tribe crowd sourced photographs, posted police radio chatter, aiding NY papers in their mistakes. Still, the precedent has been set. State efforts to brush back these forays with press conferences and official photos only underscores their impact on events.
Dangerous commingling identities did not occur overtly, either. Yet we saw glimmers. Sober-minded critics of kinetic solutions adopted the militarized expediency values of the moment, observing FBI incompetence and the calling for more deployed force. Once the crisis was over and the new tribe disbanding, these voices reverted to skepticism over enemy combatant status. We may not be so lucky next time.