Networks, communities, tribes, cults

You are a change agent with an idea, and you need others to bring it to life. What kind of group do you create?

You are a chief marketing officer who wants to nurture relationships with several external constituencies. Which digital tools will best support you?

You are an entrepreneur who has built or inherited a group. How do you optimize and scale your organization to achieve its ends?

I am fascinated by different models for organizing human activity. I think we instinctively categorize groups based on their intentions, geography, history, or legal status. But if we instead focus on the emotional give/get between group participants, I think we would find that there is actually a limited set of models, each with consistent capabilities and formulas for success.

I share the framework below not as the final word on a big subject, but as a hopefully-useful starting point for further discussion. Umair Haque, Robert Putnam, and Douglas Atkin have crucially influenced my thinking, though they might not necessarily endorse all the definitions and distinctions that follow.

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Traditional institutions

For many of us who grew up in the U.S. in the second half of the 20th century, the word “organization” conjures up an image like this: a closed and impermeable box. The box could be a skyscraper, an org chart, or even a file cabinet. (A thank you to Andrea Saveri, who first pointed out to me, using this example, that the way a group organizes its information tends to reflect how it organizes its people.)

This group type consolidates people, information, and power. Jim Collins is eloquent in describing how to optimize these kinds of organizations, and there are many excellent resources describing how to lead them, so I won’t say too much more about them. But it’s worth noting that although this overall model is in decline, it is still excellent for specific tasks—e.g., building cathedrals or iPads.


A network has diffused power, not concentrated power. It organizes members by creating and solidifying weak ties of loyalty, trust, trade, information, or shared interest. Networks look like a collection of nodes and spokes. Facebook is a network (of friends). Twitter is a network (for information sharing). A local neighborhood’s emergency phone chain is a network (albeit a simple one).

Networks can produce tremendous good, but the emotional give/get between members is not particularly strong. In Robert Putnam’s terms, networks excel at strengthening “bonding” social capital not “bridging” social capital.

A frequent source of misunderstanding is that there are technical networks (like the phone system) and human networks (like a neighborhood’s emergency phone chain), and the two tend to co-mingle… Remember the point above that human groups tend to resemble their information systems and vice versa. An additional source of confusion is that networks often help create the substrate for other kinds of group formation, such as communities and tribes. But the strength of a network as an organization is not in how “social” it is — e.g., whether the emergency phone chain becomes a party line — but in how well it meets its members’ functional needs and expectations.


The best definition of a community that I have heard comes from Howard Rheingold (as relayed to me by Thomas Kriese): “a group of people having a conversation over an extended period of time.” In a community, the willingness to keep the conversation going — to nurture relationships for their own sake — creates bridging social capital. Boundaries and obstacles collapse, and a middle-ground is found. The emotional give/get for members in a community is therefore quite powerful:

“Catalina Mendiola, a local organizer, says, ‘The heart of our work is one-on-one meetings with people. Organizing is all about building relationships. It’s a conversation. You’re building a relationship here. Not extracting information. Not pushing an agenda. And the only way to do this is to leave yourself open to be changed by the conversation.'” (Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein, describing the work of Valley Interfaith in Better Together)

A community has a social contract, which in part distinguishes it from a network. As a community scales, the social contract must expand and evolve to handle unexpected issues, including scale itself. Jimmy Wales is eloquent about this in his Long Now talk describing the growth of Wikipedia.

Communities traditionally sit in circles, and information is shared in a commons.


Beyond communities, there are other kinds of groups that produce in their members a powerful sense of identification. Tribes are one such group. Tribes, as I would define then, are groups that share a deep affiliation around a specific shared interest or attribute. Think surfers. The gay community. Twilight or Apple fans. In Tomorrow Now, Bruce Sterling talks about the Chinese, Indian, and Russian diasporas, and how these tribes are creating value independent of nation-states and traditional economies:

“These are all people of considerable ability whose dysfunctional national politics are visibly holding them back. They have great commonalities, similar advantages, similar resentments. Nonresidents, with their flow of remittances and hunger for home news, are also becoming persistent and deeply motivated Internet users. Perhaps someday these rootless, globalized groups will realize that, since they already have the brains and the money, they might as well invent a new power structure to suit their joint interests.”

Natalie Linden sharpened my thinking about tribes when she described for me how experienced surfers could reliably count on accommodation, support and good advice while traveling by connecting with fellow surfers locally.

Tribes can be led or unled, structured or unstructured, yet they promote a very high sense of belonging. Tribes may form traditional institutions, communities, or networks to serve their interests, but the tribal identification precedes and fuels the creation of those other groups.


In 2004, Douglas Atkin wrote an excellent book called The Culting of Brands, identifying what I think might be the most powerful kind of group in the world today, one that is often disparaged and/or disregarded: cults. What defines cults most strongly, and what makes them strong, is that they borrow a key attribute from each of the other groups above.


  • Are deliberately organized and closely managed (like traditional organizations)
  • Build information and human networks that facilitate resilience and lateral scale (like networks)
  • Prize the centrality of 1:1 and group conversation (like communities)
  • Connect members around a specific shared interest or attribute (like tribes)

Seen with this lens, Mary Kay, The Mormon Church, Harley-Davidson, Al-Qaeda, and Scientology are all cults. Other points that Atkin makes: Cults as an organization model are neither good nor bad. People in cults come from normal backgrounds, have shining eyes and brightness of purpose. Cults inspire devotion and voluntary extra effort. Cults cultivate autonomy and personal truth. A quote from a cult member that has stuck with me for years: “When we initially decide to become Mary Kay consultants, we come into the company… but after not very long, Mary Kay comes into us” (The Culting of Brands). That’s a powerful organization.

The power and fragility of cults is that the attribute around which they are organized is a common belief system. A cult with a rigid set of beliefs has a very different effect in the world (debatably a more powerful one) than a tribe which promotes a curious and questioning attitude towards all beliefs. So which is better, in which circumstances? A cult with a set of beliefs that is both falsifiable and false is often a tragedy for its members, and the outside world. But given that cults as an organizational model seem to tap into something deep in the human brain, is there a way we can create cults that seek objective truth and are socially positive?

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I’ve found the above framework helpful when thinking about business models, brands, and social media strategies. But it might be useful in other ways — for example, when thinking about the future of the nation-state. One of my favorite phrases that I’ve learned this year is “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” — as paraphrased by Dmitry Orlov, the mistake that “just because different objects at different times carry the same label (‘America’), they are somehow the same object.” A nation-state is not a group size or structure that I think our brains are wired to comprehend, but it’s interesting for me to think about America through the lenses of each of the organization types above — traditional institutions, networks, communities, tribes, cults — and ask how we can use deliberate group-building and -strengthening to create a brighter future.

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