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Tribes of the 21st Century

An essay collection makes the case that, in the digital age, community is more a matter of ideas than of geography. Even if the idea is a Nigerian e-mail scam.

Electronic tribes, a collection of 16 competitively selected academic essays published this summer by the University of Texas, examines the communities that develop online, from teenagers who download music on Napster to the unsuspecting targets of Nigerian e-mail scams. While the analysis is sometimes lacking, the essays combine to build a powerful argument that online communities have fundamentally altered the ways and reasons people associate. Whereas communities used to form based primarily on geographic proximity, Electronic Tribes suggests they are increasingly forming, in both the real and virtual worlds, around ideas.

The best essays in the book, edited by Tyrone L. Adams of the University of Louisiana, Lafayette and Stephen A. Smith of the University of Arkansas, are those in which the author actively participates in some kind of listserv, message board or online game. In “Don’t Date, Craftsterbate,” the writer charts the levels of trust that the hobby-loving members of the Web site have established beyond knitting advice, chronicling the slight embarrassment (and subsequent cheering up) of a woman who posts a delicate question about her menstrual cycle. Another essay takes a close look at “World of Warcraft,” the massively multiplayer online role-playing game that now boasts more than 2 million paying subscribers who often elevate their virtual lives — slaying orcs and forming guilds — above their “real” ones. “All the players I interviewed insisted they were able to separate and manage the two realities,” writes Thomas Brignall III. “However, the hard-core players expressed the sentiment that WOW life was better, or at least wished offline socialization was similar to WOW’s.”

This becomes a dominant theme in many of the essays: Can online culture be transferred, or translated, into the real world? Will the revolution not only be televised, but will it have started because of a breakaway guild? McDaniel College’s Deborah Clark Vance, who studied a Web site called Boomer Women Speak, doesn’t think so, seeing the virtual world as merely another portal through which people express traits forged in real experience. She writes: “Internet technology may not cause, so much as expose processes we typically undertake — realizing our affinity, deciding whether we are in or out of a particular group, noticing the limits to which we identify.”

Indeed, when the essays turn to the darker corners of the Internet, it is the ability to organize over vast distances, rather than proselytize to the uninitiated, that captures the authors’ attention. “The new technology has eradicated most of the barriers that once segregated the Aryan old guard from racist youth,” writes Jody M. Roy, Ripon College communication professor, in “Brotherhood of Blood,” an essay examining cyberhate groups. “At the most basic level, the electronic community provides groups like Aryan Nations and the National Alliance with a cost-effective way to share their vast libraries of racist literature with skinhead youth.”

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The Internet also provides a haven for white-collar crime, and the final essay in the book explores the evolution of the notorious Nigerian e-mail scams (known as “419” after the heading for the fraud section of the country’s criminal code) that have bilked people out of billions of dollars around the globe. Tracing the con to the “Spanish Prisoner Letter” of the 16th century, in which a letter solicited money to free a relative from jail, the authors note the irony that in 1914, the year of Nigeria’s founding, the British ambassador to Spain warned colonial officers to keep Nigerians on their guard against the ruse. But if the modern scam owes something to the corruption and chaos of colonial rule, why has Nigeria — and, in particular, the country’s southeastern ethnic group, the Igbos — led the fraudulent charge? The authors write: “This cultural dimension of the 419 phenomenon has never been explored in any scholarly or popular accounts of the origins of the scams, but in a world that is becoming increasingly mediated in its communications and intercultural in its interactions, it certainly should be.”

That suggestion could extend to all of the worlds explored in Electronic Tribes: Internet groups represent fertile, and mostly uncharted, territory for behavioral scientists, and the book raises many fascinating questions that largely go unanswered. For instance, it’s interesting to note that members of LiveJournal can become the most important people in other members’ lives without ever meeting face to face or exchanging real names, but what are the wider implications for society? Are relationships formed around ideas inherently stronger than those formed because of geography? What does the transient nature of the virtual world, with blogs popping up one day and vanishing the next, mean for these relationships?

Even though many of the essays read more like early drafts than finished articles, Electronic Tribes presents a wealth of insight on a subject sorely in need of more analysis. As shared interests become more important than a shared ZIP code in forming and maintaining friendships, the observation of the University of Denver’s David R. Dewberry in “Theorizing the E-Tribe on” seems especially apt: “We have all formed new urban tribes at our new homes — in Chicago, in Texas, in Oklahoma, and in Denver — but when we do move away from those places, from those urban tribes, we will not leave our new friends behind as long as there is the e-tribe.” We live in an age of two different worlds, with two different sets of friends; perhaps the second edition of Electronic Tribes can tell us a bit more about what it all means for the person in the middle.

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