Does social media promote tribalism?

by | Jul 7, 2024 | Life, Tech

I asked a question

This is a question I recently asked on the ATT Instagram account in preparation for a podcast episode we will be recording soon. Not surprisingly, most of the respondents answered “yes” but is that really what’s going on?

You know what it’s like when you’re watching a well-crafted movie and the filmmaker sets up a pattern that is just obscure enough for you to feel like an absolute genius because you had the mental acuity to FIGURE IT OUT (along with 98% of the other people who watched it)?

Well, that’s how I felt the other night when I was in the shower doing some of my best thinking and it occurred to me that tribalism is not a “social media” problem.

Then what, pray tell, is the source of said swing towards tribalism?

Glad you asked!

Over the last year or so, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to global trends, geopolitics and how the economy works. I’ve also read some very enlightening books from people with many letters after their names. (Like this guy)

During this side-quest, one of the things I found especially interesting is just how unique this last 80 years of history has been.

Thanks to The Long Peace™ that we have experienced since World War II, globalization has created the equivalent of an economic unicorn. That economic unicorn travelled the countryside liberating people from their bonds and enabling them to progress from thinking as tribes to thinking as individuals.

This unrestrained optimism reached its height in the 80s and 90s. But then a collection of factors started to put downward pressure on the world economy. Geopolitics also began to look considerably more fragmented and significantly less trustworthy than it was just a generation ago.

So what does that have to do with social media?

Well, think about those people that were born and came of age at the height of that optimism. They have never known anything different. So when the economy and the political world around them begins to destabilize, they begin looking for protection and identity that exists outside of their fragile individualism.

In the past, that would have been in the form of family, local community, and perhaps national identity.

Here comes the plot twist:

That time of economic prosperity and peace also brought us the internet and social media. Social media subsequently allowed these spectacularly fortunate generations to slowly disconnect themselves from their local communities and find other people around the world who are just as quirky as themselves to connect with. As a result we are now more likely to form tribes along lines of ideology and global subcultures.

This is what social media facilitates exceptionally well. It understands us in a way that we often can’t even understand ourselves. In many ways gives us what we want even if we don’t know how to articulate it.

You could say, social media does not create tribalism it just enables us to be who we already were but moreso.

But did social media really create this swing towards tribalism?

From my perspective, no. It may give us more choices around the tribes that we join, but the drive for safety in the herd is far deeper than the technology itself.

Thanks for reading!