The magic of tribal events


This year, more than ever before, I’ve been thinking a lot about types of events. Strengths and weaknesses, formats, logistics, resources, what have you.

One notion has come up over and over again, in conversations at ThingsCon, at UIKonf, and years before at smaller events like Cognitive Cities and even atoms&bits: That there is a certain kind of event that allows, maybe for the first time, for a certain group to gather. To meet in person, put faces to Twitter handles, and to discuss ideas much more eloquently and deeply than your average web-based discussion allows.

A magical moment

When a group like this meets, it can be an almost magical moment. It can also feel very tribal in the sense that a group emerges with strong ties, that feels like finding the peers – the people who understand you – you should have met forever ago. It can trigger sentiments such as “We have never met before, but it feels like coming home to my family”, or “At last I found my people.” You will leave a different, better person.


A brilliant description of what makes a truly great meeting, event or conference, found in Katie Hafner’s highly recommended book Where Wizards Stay Up Late.


Personally, I fondly remember this from Reboot, and maybe a barcamp or two. I owe these conferences so much.

This type of event is hard to create, and they are far and few between. It’s almost impossible to predict which conference or meetup will have the special sauce that makes this effect possible.


Speakers dinner at ThingsCon, everyone deeply engaged in conversation.


I feel personally humbled by the folks who have attended one of my events and mentioned feeling anything like that. I heard a few mentions like this at ThingsCon; and even now, four years after the fact, I vividly remember words to the same effect at Cognitive Cities Conference. It’s the biggest compliment to receive, and maybe the most undeserved one, too: What makes a tribal event like that is the people attending, and that’s a group that is largely self-selecting.

Yet, it’s something to inspire to, and so it’s worth exploring how an event can be tweaked to nudge the odds of it becoming a magical event up just a notch or two.

What makes a tribal event?

I think there are a few characteristics that I believe many of these events share:

  1. They are scrappy & small(ish), yet are very ambitious and have a strangely large, maybe even global footprint.
  2. They are tribal in structure, effect and mental model: Recruiting participants from one or many strong communities.
  3. They are the event equivalent of what Bruce Sterling calls favela chic: minimum resources, but “wired to the gills and really big on Facebook”, in other words, highly networked and connected.
  4. They draw their particular creative friction from connecting the dots between interrelated, but largely unconnected communities. By mixing it up in interesting ways that spark debate and exchange, finding strong, organic connections hidden between the noise.

It’s a kind of mental model that resonates strongly with me. It’s very different than large, highly professional and sophisticated productions like NEXT Berlin or some other conferences I’ve been involved in. But at the same time, it’s something that (in hindsight, I believe) I’ve implicitly applied in events like atoms&bits, Cognitive Cities, and to some degree ThingsCon.

For now, these are just vague ideas forming in my mind, notions I’m trying to figure out and analyze further. If you have been thinking about this, please share your insights, I’d love to hear about them. There’s much to be done. Let’s get right to it.

A Distributed Tribal State for Geeks


Travel like a boss.

A thoughtplay. A state that has no land, no regional focus, just a tribal kind of affiliation. Instead, our tribe could sign up for citizenship, and the state’s services are aimed squarely at those information workers among us who work from their laptops wherever they are. Think of it as a city state for geeks, minus the actual city. Let’s call it, for this argument’s sake, the Distributed Tribal State (DTS, not the final name obviously).

The notion has been put forward a number of times, maybe most prominently and most tangibly by Neal Stephenson as corporation-based citizenship that you essentially can sign up for. It has sometimes referred to as distributed republic:

The concept of a distributed republic is that of a fluid republic consisting of land and citizens scattered across the globe, changing far more frequently than conventional nation-states.

What makes a state anyway?

Traditionally, the conditions for a recognized nation state are as follows. Always keep in mind that the notion has always been a blurry and – more importantly – complex one, and there are many state-like entities that would, in Facebook’s words, described as “it’s complicated”. (I’m not going to embark on a deep poli-sci discussion here, this is about the bigger, utopian picture.)

So, the somewhat-most-recognized (if strongly disputed) basic definition is the one put forward in the Montevideo Convention, which has found its way into customary international law:

The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.

It’s worth pointing out that the currently dominating model of nation states is heavily based on a model that became popular in the nineteenth century; as such, it’s somewhat arbitrary, and more importantly, it’s not like a universal checklist that any other state would refer to. Mostly, what constitutes a state is a political question rather than a legal one. (For a quick, but solid overview of the strenghts and weaknesses, and lots of exceptions to any of the guidelines mentioned above, read this.)

That said, let’s quickly go through the four, because we have to start somewhere:

a. Permanent population: For what it’s worth, if people signed up in a permanent way (namely by giving up their former citizenship) I’m tempted to say that would suffice.

b. Defined territory: Nope, fail on that one. But given that many nations have been in territorial disputes for ages, this is hardly a knock-out criterion. Basically I’d argue that as long as no other state claims that the DTS violates their borders, it should be all possible to solve. Of course that would not happen as the DTS negotiates bilateral agreements with all the states to specifically allow DTS citizens to live and work on their land in exchange for taxes.

c. Government: Check. Whatever exact shape it might take, I daresay a democratically elected government would be the plan.

d. Capacity to enter into relations with the other states: Check. Why not!

How about practicalities?

On a merely practical level, I imagine most issues can be worked out through bilateral or multilateral agreements:

Taxes, for examples, could include two layers. Citizens would pay a certain share of their income, etc., to the DTS. On top of that, the DTS negotiates blanket agreements with all other states to automatically pay a certain percentage of taxes to those states where DTS citizens spend time. That’s just fair, after all they’d be using those other states’ infrastructure. The trick is to do this as automated and easy as possible. So, say you’d be working for 150 days a year out of Berlin, another 30 in Buenos Aires, 50 out of London, 12 out of Paris, and the rest scattered around the globe. You automatically report where you spent how much time, and pay taxes accordingly. In the end, DTS citizens might actually spend a bit more, not less taxes than they currently do in their nation states, but it would be much less of a hassle, and after all freedom comes at a price, so to speak. (It might also turn out a bit cheaper, who knows.) This might even spark a bit of a competition to attract DTS citizens to spend more time in one place or another.

Health insurance and retirement would be easy, as now we’d pay it in one country, instead of always hustling back and forth between several systems and many people already do today (and many mure will in the future). Where you collect the services doesn’t matter. Again, a key part of the DTS’ role is to negotiate bilateral agreements with existing states to use their infrastructure. You might get a better service at a hospital in Tokyo than in Burkina Faso, or the other way round, and where you decide to use your health card is up to you, or your current location at the time you need it.

Military and defense is a tricky one in a state with no land. Certainly a traditional military wouldn’t be very useful. Would it need some sort of spec ops? An anti-cyberwar unit might be all that is needed, after all the servers need to be safe and secure.

All things governmental would be resolved through a network of highly secure servers. A trusted, heavily encrypted VPN connection comes with the citizenship.


Governance itself is a bigger question that I dare to tackle here, but off the cuff I’d say a hybrid mix of representative democracy and some elements of liquid-style responsiveness.

Challenges and open questions

There are big, essential questions that need to be explored here, of course. To name but a few:

  • Inclusion: The concept outlined here is quite elitist. How about inclusion of those less privileged? How about non-exclusion of any citizens who might evolve away from the core concept that particular state was initially built on?
  • Strong social state vs libertarianism: To self-identify as “geeky” or “global” or “an information worker” or “adhereing to hacker ethics” (or whatever the smallest common denominator might be) is likely to attract potential citizens from a wide range of political backgrounds and flavors. We could, Pirate Party style, try to just shed established political labels of “left vs right” and all they imply. Personally I don’t think that would solve any issue but be a merely semantic trick. Instead, it might mean that several such states are necessary ranging from the more radical libertarian to those with a stronger focus on social welfare and stronger state. (Personally, I tend to err on the side of social security over libertarianism, but obviously there’s plenty of room for many states to co-exist.)
  • Evolution over time: What happens over time? Initially, this is likely to attract the people whose needs it caters too most. Concretely, relatively young professionals who travel a lot as part of their work, which is built around online-communications of sorts. In other words, we’d be looking at (I’m simplifying to make a point) a relatively young, healthy, privileged group of experts of some sort or another, that heavily depend on technology. The same thing that empowers this group today might at some point be their most vulnerable point, if the technology evolves in unexpected ways or stops to function in a cataclysmic event of sorts, or if the population simply ages without attracting enough younger citizens. What happens to a state then that doesn’t have any infrastructure or land?

So, this just as a little thoughtplay. That said, I already proposed that Ben Hammersley would make a good Secretary of State. As for the rest of the cabinet, some names for a proposed shortlist of candidates are obvious: Chairman Bruce might surely make a good president, Cory Doctorow might be a great Minister of Culture. Bruce Schneier might run the Ministry of Cyberdefense, and Parker Higgins would be my preference to head the Ministry for Privacy and Consumer Protection. Maybe Larry Lessig would help us write the constitution to help avoid the dangers of institutional corruption. There are loads more I’m missing.

I’m pretty sure this could be a citizenship I’d be happy to carry.

The Multitasking Tribe Out on the Town


Still life at Dumbo

Over at the New York Times, there was an article the other day: Out on the Town, Always Online. While curiously sparing out most attempts at digging for deeper explanations, it shows and discusses how people have become used to permanently be connected through their cellphones. (Note that I’m trying to avoid any generational reference.)

The Nagara Zoku

To any of us, the folks who are out and about and won’t hesitate to reply to a text message or a tweet during dinners, conversations or on subways, the article doesn’t really explain anything new. However, there are a few nuggets in there, and a few points certainly worth discussing. At the very least, it’s a discussion we’ve all had many times – I certainly did, with family and more offline friends alike.

That behavior, the never ending multi-tasking, of course has a name, too. The Japanese refer to it – to us – as the Nagara Zoku, the Multitasking Tribe.

And there’s a fair bit of potential social conflict in this where other tribes are involved.

I’m being social, just not with you

“I don’t think of what’s here and what’s not here as separate,” he said. “Like I’ll be out with my mom and if I look at my phone, she says I’m being anti-social. I say, ‘I’m being social, just not social with you.’ ”

For us, that’s normal. Hey, I’m not less engaged, but more so! Only, it’s not easily apparent for everyone outside, well, our heads. After all, as often as not reaching for our phones isn’t with social intent, but with the intent to cocoon, to tune out for a moment, or because we’re bored of the conversation.

Either one of which is legit, but we easily send the wrong signals.

Participate in the future before you build it

Most of this potential conflict is part of a change process. Protocols change, and quickly. Says Spencer Lazar, founder of mobile startup Spontaneously:

“I get away with it more than other people because of the industry I work in. I try to adopt behavior that will reflect the way the future will be. It’s important to participate in the future before you build it.”??

The future etiquette is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet. We see that every day, and there’s a crass difference between having dinner with our families (“Can’t you put your phone away for a minute?”) and our peer group (“Have you checked in on Foursquare yet?”).

For me personally it’s a matter of great personal interest to watch how etiquette and behaviors change, and it has even become part of my job. What’s not to love about it?

The rule of the trajectory

Curiously, the New York Times article notes that evening plans for one of the featured couples are “vague”. If anything, planning social activities seems to have gotten much less of a pain compared to when I was a teenager – And I’m almost sure it’s not exclusively because I don’t feel as akward now as back then.

Where a few years ago, you’d need a more or less rigid schedule, now a trajectory is all you need. No more meet at Bar X at nine. Instead, we’ll leave at 9, join us when you’re free, you know how to find us, and we’ll take it from there. A state of flow instead of a rigid framework. It’s in flux, both in terms of activities and group members. And this makes it more open, more social, more participatory.

In other words, it’s altogether smoother, more elegant.

And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.