The Dirty Little Secret of Consumer Tribes

Do you like this book cover? These people sitting, dancing together, banging on their drums. To me, they just look so tribal. But kind of electrodigital too, as they are lit up in neon. The guy front left has his face made up in makeup reminiscent of the band KISS. It’s like a portrait of the contemporary, media-saturated, digital tribal soul. At least, that’s what I was going for.

In yesterday’s entry, I wrote about how four key characteristics of fan culture–enthusiasm, self-identification, cultural competence and productive activity-might help us to better understand what is going on in the greater consumer culture around us. That can certainly help marketers. It can help those who are interested in what marketers do, such as scholars, writers, thinkers, regulators and policy-makers. But it can also help us to all become more informed citizens as we negotiate a rapidly changing world where a lot of people are drawing on commercially created media, texts, and objects for more of their meaning and sense of community.I’ll write more about netnography soon, but it will suffice for now to say that Star Trek fans pointed me to online communities, and I’ve been fascinated with them and their evolution ever since.

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about online communities lately (I sometimes call them eTribes, a term I coined in a 1998 article in the European Management Journal).

One of the most remarkable aspects of online communities is their creative nature. In a world of information and text, the act of communicating instantly becomes an act of communication. By posting a comment to this blog, you become a co-creator. Technology has made text creation and text sharing incredibly easy. Perhaps that’s why Marshall McLuhan’s ideas, originally formulated to explain the expanding universe of the Gutenberg Galaxy, are still so vivid and relevant, and so often drawn upon. We’re in a similar stage of growth, where every single person with a networked computer (this sort of access to information is quickly becoming an indispensable utility like water, heat, or electricity) has Gutenbergian powers of publication and distribution, communication, culture creation.

Culture creation—that’s interesting.

While I was still working in Wisconsin, I had been communicating with Avi Shankar, a colleague who was then teaching at the University of Exeter (he has since moved on the University of Bath to join an amazing group of scholars that includes Richard Elliot and Brett Martin). We were discussing editing a special issue of a journal based on our mutual interest in the field of subcultures and cultures that had community connections.

We kicked around the idea of turning this ambition into a book. Shortly after that, we approached Bernard Cova, a fellow scholar from Euromed Marseille. Bernard was famous for his work on consumer tribes (a term I also liked and used to describe the behavior of these collectives). The three of us agreed to co-edit a volume on the topic, originally playing with different titles, but finally settling on the name Consumer Tribes.

We approached scholars across Europe, the United State, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand who we knew were working on interesting and important research in this area. Fortunately, most of them said yes, and wrote chapters for us. We even got Michel Maffesoli, the godfather of postmodern tribal theory, to write a new chapter for us.

For those of you not in academia, I’ll let you in on the dirty little secret of academic publishing: no one gets paid. Not a cent. For my two years of on-and-off work getting Consumer Tribes together, I got 3 copies of the book. The authors got one copy each. That’s it. That’s the dirty little secret of Consumer Tribes.

Academic publishing is a labor of love. I did have fun, and working with the authors was a joy. Working with Bernard and Avi was especially gratifying, because together we had a look at the cutting edge of this field of cultures, subcultures, tribes, and communities of consumption. We wrote an introductory chapter that I’m very happy with. That introductory chapter, called “Tribes, Inc.” overview this very important area of scholarship and details where we see this field moving. It has some truly original ideas.

Now, I’m not going to offer too many spoilers here, but that chapter starts to build thought and theory on a pressing question in this Web2.0 universe. And that question is: how should companies treat those who contribute to their brands and communities? When and how should contributors to a company, its brands, and communities be compensated?

That question is currently the three hundred pound gorilla in the online community management world. It’s growing every day, too (attention is like bananas to that gorilla). One day it will be the nine hundred pound gorilla, one of most pressing questions online community managers, and other content (and even product and brand) managers will have to deal with in the next 3-5 years.

That introductory chapter in Consumer Tribes begins to lay the groundwork for a greater understanding of this issue. My chapter, on Star Trek Tribes, also begins to build theory in a couple of important areas related to intellectual property and participatory communities.

I’ll tell you more about those theoretical areas tomorrow. And I’ll include a few sections from that chapter, in which I revisit Star Trek as a fieldsite, to try to entice you into buying the book.

But if you can’t buy the book, at least I’d like to encourage you to think about some of the ideas from it, since I’m sure not going to be getting rich on royalties from it. That’s why I like the Internet: it makes it so easy to share ideas.

Academics give away our content. What a concept.

One Response

  1. rasputin7 June 7, 2007

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