Quick, what do Donald Trump, Crossfit, and FanExpo have in common?
No, it’s not a rugged devotion to protein, cool outfits, weird hair or comic book villains – although any of these would have been a good guess.
Actually, it’s that all of these have benefited, in a digital age, from the rise of tribes.
Before the widespread use of electronic and digital communication technologies, people were basically bound to find meaning and fellowship within their communities of place and space. You primarily interacted with those who were closest to you, geographically speaking, and there were certain places that you would go to socialize, find love, and connect with your community. Churches, community groups, bowling leagues, all of these activities and similar others allowed people to connect with one another over a shared geographically relevant interests that usually had the side benefit, according to Robert Putnam, of also encouraging people to engage in the community issues that mattered.
This all changed with the rise of electronic communication, and particularly internet media digital communication tools like social media. Now we are not bound to communities of fate or geography. We do not need churches, community groups and bowling leagues because we can find people who are more like us halfway around the world, rather than needing to get along with those closest to home just because we share an interest in a particular activity or sport. Unfortunately, Putnam would tell us, this has had the side effect of starving local civic engagement. We are, as he suggested, “bowling alone”.
But some groups and individuals have managed to be successful by recognizing that we do not have the fellowship opportunities or community identification that we used to have by virtue of our geography. These groups and individuals are becoming successful by creating new opportunities for fellowship and engagement – creating tribes that are sometimes bound geographically but do not have to be. Donald Trump drew his success from the fact that communities have been disenfranchised by a growing lack of geographical identification. A Make America Great Again Hat could become a symbol of a new tribe that was united by a need to connect with others who felt similarly disadvantaged. Crossfit brings people together in physical gyms (or boxes) but also brings people together virtually through blogs, Instagram posts, and Facebook pages, to share their love of high intensity workouts and paleo eating, forming a community of people who worship at the altar of heavy lifting. FanExpo also has a physical event, but one that is optimized for social media. Beautifully designed cosplay effortlessly attracts social media shares and Reddit upvotes, and people flock to sharing sites for tips on how to put a costume together or for the latest slash fiction.
So those who are most successful at spreading their message in an era of information overload, is those who take our natural longing for community, and tap into it using the technologies of the information age. To do this, they employ a long tail strategy. They don’t try to be everything to everyone. Instead they find their niche, and they drill down into it to find the diehards who want to be loyal to the tribe because they care so much about it.
Average doesn’t go as far in the Internet age. Instead it belongs to the freaks, freakishly devoted, and the ones that freak people out. Unique is better than normal, and unique with a soundbite or Instagrammable image is even better.