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16 November 2007

Urban Tribal Chat

I was walking down the road the other day, trying to call a friend, and ended up leaving a message when he didn't answer - and this is what I realised:

Back in the mists of time, living in small villages, where we knew everyone - communication was easy. Friends walked in local streets and lived in walking distance. Many could have been contacted simply by shouting - and the rest could have been found without much more effort. Of course, people went away for a while - but they came back soon, with stories of the surrounding world. It was never difficult or a long to wait for the satisfaction of personal communication.

Every technology that's really taken off, in terms of communication, over the last hundred years or so, has had one common outcome: to replace a form of communication that was available more readily to our ancestors.

The obvious example is the phone.

Living across cities, spanning ever increasing distances, we needed a technology that would allow us to talk to each other, as if in the same room. Suddenly we could do the technological equivalent of popping in to see our village friends, who lived just next door, and have a chat with them whenever we wanted. As the urban tribe separated - we found a way to bring it closer again.

But there was something missing...

In the real world... in the old world, we were able to leave a note when our friends weren't in. Just a little note, stuck to the door, to say "hi, I was here and wanted to see you... come around and find me when you're back".

And this is where my story meets the phone message again... we made the answering machine - later to become the message bank - so we could leave little messages for each other, on the hut door, to say
"hi, I called you and wanted to talk to you... call me back when you can"

Emails were really just an extension of an earlier attempt to close the gap between broadly spread friends and relations: the mail system.

But still there was something missing... A certain organic form of communication. The little pieces of information you get from simply seeing your friends in the street, from a distance - passing by. The information gathered by actually living in the same village and watching your tribal acquaintances: randomly seeing what they're up to at any one time.

And so now we've reached the next step in this communication revolution*
- the Social Network.

Really just another step in filling the digital village with the urban tribe.

To anyone under twenty, what I'm saying probably sounds really obvious. But I'm over thirty, and to me it's amazing how closely the social network maps to the tribal village.

If you happen to be visibly online (outside) at the same time as one of your friends you can poke (wave at) each other. You can take it a bit further and message (cross the road and talk to) each other. You can pop into the local hall and take your move in chess / scrabble etc. You can go down to the bar, or meet your friends at the park and answer each others questions.

If you want, you can just log on and check the mini news feed (look out the window of your hut) and see what people are up to.
I keep being asked by my contemporaries what "all this social network thing" is about.

To them, I will now say this:

We're rebuilding the village.

It may not be the same as it was. There may be all sorts of practical differences - but the fact remains that in hundreds of years of urbanisation, humans have failed to move away from their desire for the simple tribal life.

Our close knit group of "between thirty and a hundred friends and relations"** are still our tribe... no matter how widely spread - how many other unknown people we need to pass in the street on our way to see them - or how much technology we need in order to stay in contact with them.

And if we can see why we've come the way we've come, perhaps we can get a better idea of where we're going with it - and where it can take us***.

* Or should it really be "the information REvolution". After all (and this is the point) all of these technologies serve to satisfy a desire for old forms of communication that have been lost. Lost through distance and urbanisation. These aren't new forms of communication - they're old forms of communication executed over distance. We've spread the urban tribe far and wide - and slowly, but surely the tribe is finding ways to communicate in just the same way it always used to.

** Desmond Morris. The Human Animal, 1994. See his wikipedia entry.

*** The one caveat to saying there is no difference but distance... is the existence of greater choice. We now have millions of people in our city (or even billions of people around the world) to choose our tribe from, and still communicate as if they were in the local village. That choice will bring greater challenges in the years to come, as tribes become ever more atomised, people find people who are nearly exactly the same as themselves and only ever have to communicate with people who support their own point of view.

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