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October 2, 2003
the value of urban tribes
This week, Ethan Watters' book "Urban Tribes"
hits the bookstores. After the popular reception of his New York Times article "The Way We Live Now: In My Tribe,"
Watters started documenting different forms of "urban tribes." These collectives are often comprised of tightly-knit groups of overeducated, unmarried, 25-39 year old friends who came together in cities to provide support and companionship. Watters argues that the power of these collectives allows people to postpone marriage as the primary support networks are embedded in the tribe. He also argues that Robert Putnam's theory of "Bowling Alone" fails to take into account these new formations which encompass many of the community behaviors that Putnam argues are missing in contemporary culture.
While it's primarily a generation book, Watters' ideas are fascinating, as they blend academic ideas, journalism and personal anecdotes. Plus, he is pointing at a phenomenon that is quite relevant to the emergent YASNS phenomenon. I would posit that if you look at the structure of how the Friendster meme spread, you will be able to see the role of these tribes. Peer pressure in the densely knit tribes required participation and the bridges between tribes generated the spread. Normally, this type of spread is common in colleges or other environments with strong clustering; Friendster suggests that clusters do exist in the post-college urban world.
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