Authentic belongingness: Community, context and culture in a digital world

By | May 22, 2011

Belongingness: The human emotional need to be an accepted member of a group. Whether it is family, friends, co-workers, or a sports team, humans have an inherent desire to belong and be an important part of something greater than themselves. The motive to belong is the need for “strong, stable relationships with other people.”  

Birds flock, fish school, humans….? What do humans do? It’s something I’m always thinking about. What are we hardwired for? It’s relevant to technology opportunities since to tap into them requires understanding what the human animal needs/wants at a primal level and then servicing those needs.

And my conclusion is that – of all the animals in the kingdom we are most like (get ready for it): wolves. 

The similarities are interesting. We are both pack animals, with defined groups we belong to. Groups that have internal social heirarchies (alpha dogs, literally or metaphorically) and a constant struggle for some individuals to be that “alpha”. Groups that can be vicious to outsiders, or to those members who violate the “rules”.  Rules that are for the most part, completely (in the wolves’ case, totally) unwritten.

These rules and group norms are called “culture”. And although we don’t typically bite, both groups punish members who transgress those rules.

So I find it fascinating to watch how these hardwired behaviors impact on the evolution of virtual communities. Are the behaviors shown there really so different?

We seek out like minded people, with whom we share interests or values. On Facebook – are you “friends” similar to you? I always think of it as various circles I’m in. I have my techie friends, my political friends, etc etc. And within a few shades of gray, they align reasonably closely with my own interests, thinking and/or philosophy.

But occasionally someone will meander into a conversation, a friend of a friend from another circle, who doesn’t know the inherent “rules” (everyone here is an atheist, and a conservative christian with wander in, for example), and proceed to disagree. Wham! The group typically shuts down the conversation. They didn’t know the rules. How dare they enter. Tempers flare, words are written. It never ends up pretty. I regularly hear from a wide variety of people that the vitriol is  ”getting” to them.

So let’s be honest, there’s not a huge amount of open minded learning-type discussions on Facebook. For the most part it’s either you’re “hanging out” with people who already have a fair amount of overlap with your own ideas (or you knew them in junior high and couldn’t turn down their friend request). Which contradicts what you probably THOUGHT a social place like Facebook would  (should?) be.

I wish it were a place of learning and expanding. Instead it’s interestingly becoming the opposite. Because human nature congregates and puts up walls, creating outsiders. The medium might champion (apparent) transparency, but human nature is doing exactly the opposite.

I use my own progression of involvement in social networking to illustrate. 

Initially, like many, I friended lots of people outside my comfort zone. I figured that – a  la a traditional cocktail party – I’d mix with lots of different types. After all, I consider myself fairly open minded; I might not agree with you, but I’m interested in why you think what you think, and thought I might learn something, hear a different point of view, expand my horizons, kumbayah kumbayah. I think many exuberantly flocked with the same excitement; even my dad (the original Mr. Magoo himself) had heard, and was curious to try, Facebook.

I hesitantly dipped my toes in the social water, tentatively, politely, diplomatically, in well-brought-up style not reacting, contradicting, or challenging - but found instead is that it’s virtually impossible to stay on the fence and be “myself”. As time went on (and one pugnacious twat interaction too many), I started culling the pack, so to speak. And have been left with circles (groups) of people who’s values – within a few shades of gray – fairly closely already align with my own.  

Which is a cop out, at least in my theoretical head. I’ve migrated to what is by my own definition being a bit close minded and occasionally (and I hate to admit it, but fair is fair) slightly (ok, I can’t admit to more) adversarial….and contradicts the way I *actually* like to think about myself. Perhaps it’s the subjects; social networking does seem to easily stray into subjects that were nary discussed with strangers until its advent (sex? politics? money? religion? how about all of the above?) – the transparency of the medium disallowing non engagement, perhaps. But for whatever reason, I’m clearly “there”.

I hesitate (nay, reject! don’t worry) to say that it’s possible to generalize entire humanity’s hardwiring based on looking only at myself as a petrie dish and am aware of the pitfalls in even mentioning myself as an example.

But I use it to illustrate what I’ve noticed going on all around me: from Facebook comments to online communities around a wide variety of interest / subjects / philosophies, people self form into groups where their own behaviors / morals / values are reflected, create a set of “rules” around behaviors there as naturally (and unthinkingly) as breathing, and gravitate towards situations where they do not feel their own inherent values are challenged.

We know the rules, the culture – the unwritten language – and drift to where we are comfortable. And I do think we are hardwired to do this; throughout history, humans have clumped together into (wolf like) communities, either physically or interest-based (or both), and are now adding virtually to the list of ways to connect.

So if each virtual group is creating it’s own “culture”, and we humans tend to reject what isn’t part of our “group”, how do you get your brand message heard? Or more to the point, how do you get people to interact with you?

Particularly if (as I believe) traditional “push” advertising as we currently know it will increasingly fail in this new world, as people become more and more spoiled used to streaming whatever they want on demand, sitting through enforced messaging will become less and less palatable – plus technology will enable them to choose what they want, when they want it, not on a predetermined schedule. 

So they’ll be ignoring your messaging, if done the traditional way. No more commercial break during your regularly scheduled programming. Other than, perhaps, live sports events.

It means that brands will have to become “friends” so to speak. They have to be responsive. They have to have 3D personalities, much like taking a brand and creating a restaurant “experience” requires re-imagining what the brands feels like, and translating that to interior decor.

But it will have to feel “authentic” to the person who’s group you’re trying to woo; you’ll have to use their language, their timing, their norms, their rhythms; you’ll have create the kind of interaction they expect, and to do that requires constant learning and feedback loops.

Because otherwise, just like wolves, you’ll be snapped at and kicked out. Which will require a new way to analyze and learn the nuances of how we’re talking to each other (along with how we talked (channel), where, when, etc – see my previous entry The Borogoves are a’ Mimsying for a deeper explanation).

Traditional database analysis – where columns and rows are predetermined and the data fits neatly into the categories you set up – won’t work anymore. Because the data will be people talking, using their own, private jargon with their own, group context/frame of reference (culture). The things that go unspoken that everyone just knows – a common frame of reference. These things lubricate our every interaction, seamlessly, without even a moment’s notice for the most part. Even when you interact with someone from a really different culture – because you’re both so trained to only think from your own frame of reference, that usually you don’t even think to ask what their assumptions are (even if they could articulate them). It’s the water we swim in, either unknowingly, or by choice.

And as each group has their own jargon and context, it become impossible to standardize…and add even another layer on top, language itself is so imprecise, imagine trying to explain to a logical, linear computer how to identify sarcasm (you look GREAT!) or indeed, slang “fat!” – at least, I think that’s slang lol. But my own peeps grok me fine.

Our new gadgets create so much information as to make analysis fruitless, and indeed, back to that linear model – these need to be set up properly in the beginning, so if it’s structured around apples and pears, what do you do when a kumquat walks in? We need ways to have computers that learn from experience and apply that intelligently to a new situation, because programming by anticipating precisely each potential variation when there’s so much data, is impossible.

Starting to understand just how complex this all is?? Particularly since people are member of multiple groups, both real and virtual, and you’ll have to get the timing right too. No good talking sports appropriate language when your customer is in helping his kids with homework mode.

I’m hearing all over the place that this kind of insight analysis (based on learning algorithms – some call it “artificial intelligence”, or heuristic learning) vs linear analysis is indeed the next frontier; the limits of how far we can push the way data and analytics has always been done. And many are trying; there are fortunes to be made here.

So Skynet, here we come. Although I’d argue sentience is a far cry from learning abilities (I know not all agree…that’s for another day). So I wouldn’t be worried about those computer overlords just yet (Geek humor! – my group will “get” it!).

8 thoughts on “Authentic belongingness: Community, context and culture in a digital world

  1. mark steele

    Your comments about friend groups having the same culture is certainly true in my Facebook circle. But within our basic shared culture, there is room for disagreement and discussion. Not a lot of room, however. I think that’s because social media are all about communicating with each other for no other purpose than the pleasure of it in itself.

    Compare that to my competitive bridge circle. I have many partners and opponents (we can’t have competition without both) with whom I radically disagree about almost everything away from the bridge table. But those discussions are permanently on hold. Whether they are about religion, politics or simply what kind of restaurants we like, they have no relevance to our competition. So as far as being wide ranging on non-bridge topics, we are far less tolerant of each other’s views than a social media group. However, we accept disagreement about the game of bridge to the actual shouting, stand-on-the-chair, fist-pounding level in our postmortems of games and future strategy planning.

    Work circles are different yet again. As I recall (it’s been awhile since I’ve donned a necktie) professional circles allow for a carefully circumscribed level of disagreement. Arguments can only be carried so far. No fist pounding here. But the range of subjects that can be brought into the discussion is almost unlimited. Sex is about the only subject that is banned outright in the workplace. So a work pack is kind of the direct opposite of a competitive bridge pack.

    Unlike wolves, whose pack regulation is crucial for their very survival–and pretty much that alone–humans seem to come together in many ad hoc “packs” for many reasons. Rigidly organizing ourselves for hunting down and killing and dividing prey isn’t even on the radar. But we need affinity groups, social groups, project groups, spiritual groups, symphonies, juries, professional groups, group grope groups, teams, cohorts, departments, corps, couples, companies, leagues, families (both close and extended), and on and on and on.

    So I’m going to disagree that we’re much like wolves at all. Our grouping seems to me quite temporary and fluid. Rules are looser, and one is seldom bitten. We may get growled at, leave a group, or just sit back quietly for awhile and then fully rejoin. Or we might growl back. We can engage more with one of our groups for awhile and then another. We may simultaneously be part of many single-purpose groups that don’t last long and never were expected to.

    Leaving a group for humans may be as easy as a trip to the bar “for another drink” or as hard as a divorce.

    I think we’re more like butterflies than wolves.

  2. ramatheson

    Interesting article. On FB, I went through the same thing you did. I took in everyone. Eventually, I started cutting people out until it was only good friends and old school buddies I couldn’t delete. Now, it is only good friends, with a couple of those old school buddies who I get along with.

    The thing is, I am constantly exposing myself to new and challenging ideas through what documentaries I choose to watch (I don’t have cable), and what books I read, and what articles I read online. I use FB as a way to express myself. I am very blunt. People delete me, or they spew vitriol or complete ignorance at me. No, it’s not just seen as ignorance because I disagree. It includes things like racism, sexism, etc. I don’t want FB to challenge me. I want FB to be what it is supposed to be: a place for me to chit chat with my friends. Occasionally, we have in-depth conversations; however, it’s silly to think that a place where there is basically a three-line-text-limit is anywhere that should be used to discuss anything very important.

  3. Jonathan Richter

    Just added your blog to my favorites at work! (Will soon do same at home!)

  4. Skip Shuda @skipshoe

    @Linda
    Really enjoyed your post about human groups… BTW, your intro is very similar to one I recall from Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan. His answer to your opening question?

    Humans Tribe

    You then went on to describe some really good in-the-trenches, first hand experiences on what causes tribes to form. The aspect of punishment is one that I haven’t spent a lot of time reflecting on – and it is clearly a driving force.

    Furthermore – I have noticed a lot of anger, venting, criticizing through Social Media. Your post makes me wonder if this is “boundary building” by criticizing “those who are NOT in our group”?

    - Skip

  5. Linda Post author

    I agree with you. Initially I did the same, but then ended up having so many unsavory interactions with complete strangers I decided that Facebook is entertainment, and shouldn’t cause me to go to bed angry….and sadly now am connected mostly only to people who share a high degree of intellectual overlap. That being said, I wonder if the different social networking sites (which are used for different purposes) don’t facilitate different types of interactions. We’ll see where Google+ goes with that!

    Thank you for reading!

  6. Pingback: Psychohistory » The Decahedralist

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