Seth Godin’s Tribes and the Connectivist MOOC

About a month ago, I read Simon Sinek’s Start With Why as part of a course I’m enrolled in, and found myself frustrated for a number of reasons. After reflecting on what I wished he had addressed, I realised that my concerns stemmed from my personal preoccupations with the politics of belonging and social inclusion. I began to wonder if other popular thought leaders addressed this politics in their texts on tribe-making, and decided that Seth Godin’s book Tribes was an appropriate starting point.

Tribes is more leadership manifesto than book, with spare prose, lightly sketched examples, and no end-notes. In a sense, it feels strange to so seriously critique a text that is meant more as a provocation than a playbook, but I decided to do it anyway.

I flipped through the beginning of the book feeling I was being fed a lot of aphorisms: some cleverly written, some trite. It took me a while to see this first part as Godin hyping up his audience, giving them permission to think of themselves as leaders at all. About a third of the way in, Godin did start addressing some of the graver concerns of tribe-building, even as he skated and skimmed over matters that merit deep discussion and debate. I wasn’t totally on board with all the arguments at hand (when are we ever?) so here’s an overview of the things that resonated and that I considered problematic.

What is a tribe?

Godin’s prose isn’t always precise; early on he talks about how he’s not interested in tribes that are stuck in one place, but ones that are really a movement for positive change (p. 5). He then shifts between using ‘tribes’ and ‘movements’ but at least he’s clear on what they entail: one person getting excited about an idea, being brave enough to communicate to why s/he finds it revolutionary, gathering together a collection of people who are equally passionate about it, and then leading them to create a new product, change a system, or provide a service, as a result.

According to Godin, tribes require leaders, this means “creating change that you believe in.” (p.14) On the surface, it seems simple enough, even a little problematic (not all change is good change) but he goes on to offer some clarifications.

What does leading a tribe look like?

This slim text asserts that everyone can be a leader, but underscores on multiple occasions that this entails facilitating communication and connection between the members of your tribe:

To lead is primarily to connect and inspire. (p. 52)
Followers must also be leaders if they are to ‘evangelise’ others in order to grow the tribe. (p. 56)
Visibility isn’t a must, but leaders do have to facilitate a thriving conversation between community members. (p. 61)
Leaders work generously for the good of the tribe, don’t seek credit and don’t seek to distinguish themselves materially. (pp.30, 73, 135)

I’m particularly taken with this segment on nonprofits:

“The internet…lets charities flip the funnel, not through some simple hand waving but by reorganizing around the idea of engagement online. It means opening yourself up to volunteers and encouraging them to network, to connect with one another, and, yes, even to mutiny. It means giving every one of your professional a blog and the freedom to use it. It means mixing it up with volunteers so they have something truly at stake.” (p. 116)

While he asserts that despite his proliferation of internet examples, that “the real power of tribes has nothing to to with the internet and everything to do with people,” (p. 6) this preoccupation with virtual social connections is useful for thinking about the kinds of interactions that happen in MOOCs, particularly cMOOCs.

Do tribes even need leaders?

Godin’s assertions about connection-forming remind me of Justin Reich’s description of the Rainbow Loom ‘tribe’, and the story of two girls, Ashley and Steph, whose 2013 YouTube video detailing how to make a Starburst Bracelet went viral. The analogue experience of playing with Rainbow was significantly enhanced by these digital connections. Ashley and Steph didn’t have to make the video. They wanted to.

This is where I disagree with Seth Godin. I don’t believe, as he does, that a tribe requires a leader, without which it is reduced to a mere crowd (p. 30). Sure, Ashley’s and Steph’s video has millions of views, more so than that of the official Rainbow Loom YouTube account. But are they the leaders of the Rainbow Loom movement? If, as Godin says, everyone can be a leader, then does a tribe need a leader or even leaders, or is the word leader attempting (inadequately) to describe a different phenomenon altogether?

Why can’t a tribe be a self-organising, non-hierarchical system with multiple nodes and links? Why can’t the spark or catalyst of the tribe also be collective serendipitous discovery, not only individual-led assembling? Why does sharing one’s passion have to be leadership? Especially when the term leadership implies ‘follower-ship’, while I think a healthy tribe has a much more interesting set of inter-relationships.

What characteristics do tribe members display?

With Sinek’s text, I was troubled that it skirted the issue of the extent to which descriptions of a tribe can sound unpleasantly like an extremist cult. Godin does use the word ‘evangelism’ in the text (p. 56) but addresses this sticky issue fairly explicitly. He devotes a section to defining the difference between religion and faith. Religion is formal scaffolding, at its best when it amplifies faith without fear of heresy (p. 80). He uses the word heresy intentionally (p. 84). Heretics don’t lack faith; they are simply unafraid to question established practices. Tribes of the kind Godin cares about are built on precisely this kind of faith. In other words, they are perennially curious and questioning (again, think about the self-driven collectives that contribute to the success of a cMOOC). He writes:

“A fundamentalist is a person who considers whether a fact is acceptable to his religion before he explores it, [as] opposed to a curious person who explores first and then considers whether or not he wants to accept the ramifications.
A curious person embraces the tension between his religion and something new, wrestles with it and through it, and then decides whether to embrace the new idea or reject it.” (p. 63)

Tribe members (I say members because I think this behaviour can’t rest solely with ‘leadership’) are comfortable with being wrong (p. 108) in the service of eventually becoming better. They’re not ‘sheepwalkers’ who are fearful and compliant (p. 96).  Ultimately, tribes are fundamentally based on joy and a sense of adventure, not fear.

Godin’s position seems to be that the characteristics above will serve to work through conflict, although my feeling is that the assumption here is that there will at least be a shared faith within a tribe. It’s probably not within the scope of this book, but how do you challenge yourself to confront and communicate with those whose faith and tribes look very different, if only to further challenge, test, and refine your own beliefs?

(In that vein, what about those who do get burned at the stake? The horrendous numbers of secular Bangladeshi journalists who have been killed in the last year for their views comes to mind. Maybe that isn’t a good example, and it definitely has nothing to do with cMOOCs, but it does have to do with social inclusion and the range of responses to challenging the ‘system’. Godin writes repeatedly about the need to reject fear of inadequacy and criticism (pp. 44-46) but the fact is that standing up for what you believe can be fatal. In a less extreme situation, it can also get you fired. While Godin underlines the necessity of sticking with your dream over a long period of time (p. 132), privilege can really kick in here to determine your ability to sink or swim.)

Does a tribe require exclusion?

I’m a little concerned about Godin’s assertion that certain tribes do better when they’re smaller (p. 67). I understand the argument that it’s better to be small than compromise on principles, but the emphasis here seems to be on exclusivity as a force for loyalty (especially p. 105), but snobbery, however slight, seems like a poor sort of metric to me. (I don’t know what more to say here, but I hope my later posts examining Dewey’s influences on Indian democracy will provide more food for thought.)

In particular, I’m struck by Godin’s anecdote about the time he announced a paid internship, for which 130+ students applied. He set up a private Facebook group; 60 joined. Then things got interesting:

“Within hours, a few had taken the lead, posting topics, starting discussions, leaning in and leading. They called on their peers to contribute and participate.
And the rest? They lurked. They sat and they watched. They were hiding, afraid of something that wasn’t likely to happen.”

Godin’s next question is, “Who would you hire?” but that question doesn’t seem right, in part because of how I personally interact online and in person. I am most comfortable expressing myself in writing; it gives me time and space to mull over the question at hand, and prepare a considered response. When I’m engaged with something I care about, my instinct is to write first, and speak later. I’m a lot quieter in real life, unless I’ve done a bunch of reading and writing on the topic. I don’t like talking through my hat, but I also can’t keep quiet on things I care about. To extrapolate, I don’t think silence is always the same as fear, and I don’t think that the candidates who lead on Facebook are necessarily the most likely to lead offline.

I’m also interested in levelling the playing field. For example, grad school is a cakewalk compared to undergrad, but only because at this point I’ve learned how to play the Learn-at-an-American-Institution game. I know how the whole apparatus works. It’s easier for me now to make unorthodox moves in part because of my privilege and inside knowledge. My past inability was largely the result of being overwhelmed. So in response to Godin’s anecdote, my question might be, “Why are the lurkers lurking, and what types of interactions might draw them out and create a sense of inclusion?” Possibly a terrible strategy when having to make decisions as a hiring manager, but useful, I think, when dealing with engagement in the realm of MOOCs.


Postscript: I am mildly peeved about Godin’s throwaway comment that “Everyone in the developing world believes that things are going to be the way they were. So when entrepreneurship and technology show up in a village in Kenya, everyone resists.” (p. 91) Firstly, it’s a bit ridiculous to lump “the developing world” in a single category. Secondly, it’s a bit ridiculous to lump all people in the came category. I’ve noticed that while limited resources and unpredictable circumstances can lead to cynicism and apathy, it can also breed resilience, innovative thinking, and the kind of dogged patience that makes you devote your life to effecting slow and steady change.

I wrote this post as part of my reflections for #MITMassive. There are many links in the text, mostly to other posts on my blog, in order to keep in check the strands of my evolving ideas on leadership, education, and social inclusion. Please don’t feel obliged to click on them.

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