The Tribal Network Effect (nfx #15)


In 2017 we published the NFX Manual which laid out 13 types of network effects. We later identified and published the “Expertise” network effect, which was the 14th type.

Today, we’re sharing the 15th type of network effect: Tribal Network Effects.

The easiest way to understand Tribal network effects is to start by looking at the powerful network forces of school alumni networks, as discussed in Your Life Is Driven By Network Effects. Tribal network effects most often develop in alumni networks of schools, military units, fraternities and sororities, accelerators, languages, regions, and religions.

Tribal network effects are another of what we call “social” network effects, joining the three other social nfx we’ve identified: BandwagonLanguage, and Belief. This is because they exist in the minds of people and not in data and wires. The unique attribute of Tribal network effects is that they exist because of how people form their identities around (no surprise)… tribes.

We suspect this was the very first network effect historically, as Homo sapiens evolved as a pack animal, trying to survive. The ones that built the best tribes survived to procreate, so we are all descendants of the best tribe builders. Those who weren’t good at building or joining tribes died off. Thus, our brains are wired to join tribes.

How Tribal Networks Form

A few key things contribute to the formation of strong Tribal network effects:

  1. The tribe is presented as an ingredient of a person’s identity, part of how that person is perceived by others. One might think: “It’s who I am.” This forms a self-concept.
  2. Network members within the tribe are taught to be intentional about building the value of the tribe by:a. adding value to other tribe members,b. defending the tribe’s reputation,c. receiving value from the tribe members, andd. growing the tribe.This intentional value creation and defense of a network is distinct from other types of network effects, where nodes largely contribute value and drive network effects unintentionally.
  3. In contrast to the in-group of the tribe, there is an out-group that the tribe is actively NOT. A different group, a rival, an enemy, a force to be fought.
  4. A perception of higher-status attributes of members of the tribe, creating prestige and pride. Evidence or reasoning that members of the tribe are more committed, more “right”, more justified, smarter, stronger, etc.
  5. Members of the tribe endure shared hardship or adversity, such as training for the marines, studying for tests in college, founding a company, or going through a boot camp of some kind.
  6. Tribe network members overcome a barrier to get into the tribe. There must be a believable reason for your inclusion, and some demonstration of your worth or “fitness” for inclusion. There is often a period of worrying you won’t “get in.” This creates exclusivity and belonging in the minds of the tribe members, reinforcing the other five attributes.

Not all tribes share all six of these characteristics, but the more they do, the more powerful the tribal self-identification becomes in the minds of the tribe members, and thus the stronger the Tribal network effect.