Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

13 August, 2015

Social Media: tribalism and signalling
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 6:16 AM

Blaugust, day 13

Today, we’ll look at one of the biggest problems on social media: tribalism. People like to belong to groups, and social media has made it easier than ever to demonstrate allegiance to a particular group.

And this creates a lot of problems when it comes to actually communicating on the internet.

A sense of belonging

Humans are social animals, and our behavior on the internet reflects this. We like to be part of a group. Even though I’m an introvert, even I like to to have a sense of belonging to a group. I signal certain facts about myself: I’m a gamer, I’m a game developer, I’m an MMO blogger, I like to write. When I post on here, I’m often reinforcing these signals to other people. This is useful, because people who are interested in these topics will know that if they read my site, they’ll probably see these topics. So, wanting to belong to a group is fine.

But, where you have a tribe you often have other, competing tribes. If I signal that I’m a RPG player, I might be given the cold shoulder by action game players who dislike RPGs. Or, there might be people who want to make sure I’m a serious enough RPG gamer to truly belong to the RPG gamer “tribe”, and not some person who is merely following a popular trend. There’s motivation to exclude others in order to make membership of a tribe feel more worthwhile, or to demonstrate the strength of the people who are accepted as part of the tribe. You can see this with the “fake gamer (girl)” stories that pop up on occasion, where it was about reinforcing the tribal membership to the “true believers” (which in ancient times did not include a lot of women).

People also generally want to be seen as “good people”. This is complicated, because individuals are complex; you might want gender equality but still laugh at a private sexist joke your grandparent tells you. And, our interactions online are simplified and heavily edited.

Combine these things together and you get people in social media who want to signal that they are “good people” despite their flaws, and will do so by shaming the “other” tribe. Add in mob mentality and things get crazy.

Online shaming and bullying

One way people will signal their virtue and allegiance to a particular way of thinking is to participate in online shaming, where someone who makes a statement that is seen as offensive gets publicly shamed for their behavior. While arguably the goal of online shaming is to alert that person to their poor behavior, it has become more about showing how virtuous one is in shaming someone who has transgressed, and to shun that transgressor from the tribe of the righteous. Sometimes to distract from the shamer’s own flaws.

A great example of this is Justine Sacco, who made a quip to a small group of her Twitter followers, and when one person shared it a lot of people took as racist hatred. It was a huge trending topic, and people expressed unbridled glee about how this person was going to get fired. It was a way to join in the public shaming of a person that almost nobody talking about her knew personally, and to signal that you are “against racism” by shaming the person who made what was deemed an offensive tweet, and that Sacco was not welcome as part of the anti-racism tribe to the point where people relished doing her harm.

But, the story is complex. This video gives some great background and analysis: (Yeah, it’s a TED talk, and a lot of people link to these to signal a certain sort of intellectualism and lazy social concern, but this is really a good overview).

Remember what I posted Tuesday about how anger causes people to share stuff, often distorting it to the point of caricature and creating a “totem” of the enemy? That exact thing happened here, to the point where repeated falsehoods about how Sacco was the daughter of a rich, white South African mining company owner in order to make the story even more maddening. As that TED talk points out, people were trying to show their compassionate side to one group of people by being absolutely uncompassionate to someone else.

And, as the talk points out, this isn’t some novel aspect of social interaction new to the online medium. People used to do the same thing, for example, shaming out-of-wedlock mothers often to demonstrate their own purity (and sometimes to distract from their own sins).

The political dimension

Tribalism has become a large part of American politics in the last several years, which has typified the “You’re either with us or against us” mentality the anger video I posted talked about. Remember that big video-game related shitstorm that pit the supposed misogynists against the supposed emasculating man-haters? Things started to get really ugly when people with political motivations got involved. The conservative wingnuts supported the misogynists for right thinking and the liberal blowhards leapt in to defend the damsels in distress. Suddenly speaking out in support (or even not speaking against) one side gave you a political label in the eyes of many people, which added an additional level of anger. This made trying to express a nuanced opinion all but impossible as people started shouting about political issues if you didn’t show allegiance to their chosen tribe.

Once the issue touched upon political issues, it dragged in all sorts of behavior that make modern American politics frustrating. In particular, it made some people block others in an attempt to isolate the others and shun them from the tribe. But, we’ll get into the problems with that behavior tomorrow.

Belong to the group without defending the tribe

Hating “the other” leads to a lot of problems because it feeds on negative emotions. Creating tribes and defending the tribe from outsiders causes a lot of problems and greatly hinders communication.

We really should be seeking out ways to establish common ground rather than looking for ways to divide us.


  1. Bravo to you for taking on this subject, Brian. I know it’s something you’ve cared about for years — maybe this week’s blog posts can be a small step in the right direction.

    A few quick thoughts:

    1. We’ve discussed my view that online anonymity exacerbates the tendency of some people to post in anger, so I won’t belabor that one. ;)

    2. The participants are different, but the gameplay-battle-that-dare-not-speak-its-name is not the only example of horrific things being said on social media — the invective from some people involved with voting for Hugo awards has been equally awful. In both cases, politics are involved, which seems to bring out the worst excesses of dehumanizing rhetoric in people.

    3. I believe that a lot of social media dysfunction would end if people would stop believing/claiming that anyone who disagrees with them does so only out of stupidity (can’t understand), ignorance (doesn’t understand), fear/hatred (won’t understand), or outright evil. In a few cases, one of those might actually be true. But it’s death to a conversation to assume it of another person as a first and only reaction.

    4. It was brought home to me recently, with startling clarity, that many people today do not see social media as a channel for having conversations. They see it instead as a megaphone for expressing their views to as many people as possible, and they will not tolerate questions or disagreement coming the other direction in response. Unfortunately, this seems to be the future of social media. And I’m not sure there’s a cure for it.

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 15 August, 2015 @ 5:11 PM

  2. Bart Stewart wrote:
    We’ve discussed my view that online anonymity exacerbates the tendency of some people to post in anger, so I won’t belabor that one. ;)

    I’m still not convinced. People are posting dumb, hateful screeds under their real names on Facebook. I don’t think anonymity is to blame here, rather I wonder if it’s a mob mentality/strength in numbers issue. No matter what dumb stuff you post online, someone else somewhere will agree with you. So, people are emboldened.

    Otherwise, yeah, you’re pretty spot on, IMNSHO.

    Comment by Psychochild — 15 August, 2015 @ 5:12 PM

Leave a comment

I value your comment and think the discussions are the best part of this blog. However, there's this scourge called comment spam, so I choose to moderate comments rather than giving filthy spammers any advantage.

If this is your first comment, it will be held for moderation and therefore will not show up immediately. I will approve your comment when I can, usually within a day. Comments should eventually be approved if not spam. If your comment doesn't show up and it wasn't spam, send me an email as the spam catchers might have caught it by accident.

Line and paragraph breaks automatic, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Email Subscription

Get posts by email:

Recent Comments


Search the Blog


June 2020
« Aug    



Standard Disclaimer

I speak only for myself, not for any company.

My Book


Around the Internet

Game and Online Developers

Game News Sites

Game Ranters and Discussion

Help for Businesses

Other Fun Stuff

Quiet (aka Dead) Sites

Posts Copyright Brian Green, aka Psychochild. Comments belong to their authors.

Support me and my work on