eTribes and Emergent Community

I’ve been solid busy with some big projects that have required my full attention this week. On Monday and Tuesday I was speaking to an International Consumer Insight Summit. They wanted to know all about….you guessed it, netnography, and that presentation gave me a great opportunity to develop some of my thinking about online community marketing and eTribes.

eTribes is a term I coined early on as a sort of abbreviation term, but now that I’ve worked with it, I am finding that it really can mean something significant and important about online tribes. Calling them tribes rather than communities is an important move for me, because tribes connotes an anthropological view that is different from the sociological view connoted by the term communities.

One of the assertions in that presentation is that the “E” in eTribes can stand for “Emergent.” I argued that eTribes spring up organically, naturally, by themselves. They don’t need to be prompted, seeded, or activated. But for many companies, the idea of seeding and creating “their” communities is extremely tempting. Doing so makes online community fit into the familiar C3 model (command and control consumers). It makes online community much less of a threat, an unknown.

It’s like a light goes on in the boardroom: “Oh yeah,” someone says. “We fence them in, we moderate them, and then they won’t criticize us and say bad things about us.” And when they ask questions that are relevant only to them, they still get some answers. Voila, instant voice of the consumer. We knew they thought the same way we did.

Companies, you want to control you consumers better. But in this Brave Net(worked) World, you’ve already lost control.

That raises a big question for me. Is there a difference between the kind of “community” or tribe you get in a “community” that is created or sponsored by a website and the one you get emerging spontaneously, implicitly motivated and flowering on its own.

Communispace is a fascinating company that pays people $10 a month to form an artifically constructed brand community (and yes, they use the brand community terminology). They sell “private” (as in gated and controlled) online communities. Every consumer is fully identified and accountable. “Bad” (non-participating) members are bumped off. Messages are moderated. Communispace act sas the buffer zone between the world of real consumers and the corporate customers.

They’ve been quite successful selling companies this model. And why not? It’s neat, it’s clean, it’s controlled. The “wild west” (as someone at the consumer insight summit called it) of eTribes is tamed and its threat contained (and there are real threats). But I wonder exactly what it is they are selling. Is this really a tribe? Does it have the hallmarks of genuine community? Or is this a dolled up panel–still valuable, but not really a community after all?

Is anyone aware of any solid research that might shed some light on these questions?

One Response

  1. jwschlack November 17, 2007

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