Did You Ever Wonder Why We Are Poking Around on our Phones all Day?

By Joe Brewer and B. Lazlo Karafiath

Lots of jokes target the way we use our phones nowadays.  How we ignore our date to answer a text,  or keep sharing and liking and scrolling endlessly.  It’s true that most people play with their smart phones more and more and share content rather than to “talk on the phone.”  What the jokesters miss is that this is a feature not a bug!

When people are looking at their phone in public, sharing stuff, liking stuff, tweeting stuff (and looking at others’ shares, likes, and tweets) they are expressing their tribal nature.  They have found an outlet for the fundamental human drive to be in a tribe, to maintain a tribal presence, whether a factual or a fictional tribe, does not matter. Unlucky for us, we have such an imperfect piece of technology for doing this — Facebook!

The human experience is quintessentially tribal. We evolved as a species to live in groups and to see ourselves through our social networks. We became the dominant species because of our special group-forming capabilities.  Our early ancestors formed bonds with grooming behavior — as the old world monkeys continue to the present day.  They formed strong bonds with those who ran fingers through their hair, picked vermin from their skin, and pressed their bodies against them.  This was a huge time commitment.  And it was inherently limiting.  Each individual could only bond closely with a small number of its fellow tribe members.  Social networks were small in those days.

The emergence of spoken language was a game changer.  Our ancestors transitioned from grooming to gossip as a way to “socially touch” one another in the presence of a third person.  It became possible for Fred to tell Wilma that Barney is a great guy, even if Barney was off on a hunting trip. These early humans could build much larger social networks.  Their tribal size of around 150 set humans on a path to the 7 billion of us now looking for our tribe.

Thus one of the primal adoption drivers of technology is tribal behavior.  Facebook is the first technology that gave us back our tribes in the globally connected digital world – but Facebook turns towards meme dissemination in search of the Holy Grail of the internet: the personalized Paper.  Everyone throws out content that they hope will spread and bring them back members of their tribe.

As a result, Facebook acts like a tribal phone that doesn’t work properly.  We want to gossip about other members of our tribe.  What we get instead is a clunky experience of unwieldy social graphs (that are too large, too diverse, and too shallow in their connectivity).  Many a group page has been created to build tribal coherence and failed miserably.  This is why Facebook recently acquired WhatsApp — because mobile contacts are much closer to the real social network, not our “friends” or “followers” in a digital space.

This reveals an opportunity in the tech landscape.  If a service were introduced that could build tribal connections around who we most want to communicate with, it would enable a third transition in the growth of social networks from grooming to gossip to “likes and shares.”  This would be a sea change in human group dynamics.  And the combination of technology and know-how exists today to build it.

We were recently introduced to a service that could fit this mold.  It’s called Humin and it is ramping up now.  (Thanks to CMO Lane Wood for introducing us.)  Humin could be much more then a new way to access our address book: Humin could be our tribal phone.

In order to serve this social function one cannot be limited by their own preconceived notions.  If you see texting sharing and liking as a distraction from “real” relationships, you will fail to see the tribal power of human interactions.  And if you see the contact list as a technology interface merely to be improved, you will fail to see the opportunity to define an entire technology arena around the patterns of information exchange between people in their communities.

By leveraging the power of triads – groupings of three people that form the building blocks of every sharing culture –  Humin can become an enabling technology for growing our tribe in a meaningful way.  But they have to look deeper than the comedians who joke about the “misuse” of phones, or they could be missing the larger opportunity here.  The problem to be solved is not how to organize our contacts, but rather how to build a better tribal phone that unleashes our basic human drive to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

Sounds like a job for culture design.

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