Consider communities of people with similar interests who regularly communicate with each other on the Internet. Some theorists suggest that we should rightly call some of these communities “tribes,” because they appear to be their own unique societies with distinct customs and cultures. When we use the word “tribe” this way, it becomes just as open and inclusive – and just as free of hierarchical structure – as we typically think of the term “community.”
On Twitter, we might define a community as a group of people who are connected by mutual messages. Suppose that Elijah and Sarah each address tweets to each other, and suppose Sarah and Adela also address tweets to each other. The way many theorists describe communities, Elijah, Sarah, and Adela might possibly all be in the same community, even though Elijah and Adela don’t know each other at all. There are many Twitter communities like this – people who are all connected to each other by mutual messages, but who are not strongly connected to members of other communities.
Are authors right to refer to some of these communities as “tribes”? Earlier, I noted that some theorists distinguish one tribe from another on the basis of their language, with each tribe speaking a distinct language or dialect. Even if two tribes technically speak the same language, there are often noticeable differences in their grammar or vocabulary, and so the two tribes are said to speak different dialects. Theorists have demonstrated that while distinct Twitter communities may not speak different languages – or even have different dialects – they nonetheless do show marked differences in their use of language. This gives us some reason to think that it might be reasonable to think of them as “tribes.”
Members of some Twitter communities use certain words more often than members of other communities. Researchers found that a Twitter community that was largely made up of fans of Justin Bieber frequently used the words “Bieber, “pleasee,” and “<33”. In contrast, consider a group of people who love animals and advocate for their rights. This second group far more frequently used words such as “anipals,” “pawsome,” and “furever.”
Researchers then considered individual people, without knowing to which Twitter community they belonged. Just by considering the words a person used, and how often the person used them, the researchers were often able to accurately predict that individual’s Twitter community.
The researchers also discovered that members of the same Twitter community are, in general, more likely to use words that include certain letter-pairs and 3-letter word-endings than members from different communities. That is, communities don’t only more often use certain words; they also more often use certain letter-pairs and words that end certain ways.
Suppose you gather all the tweets written by all of the members of one Twitter community. Suppose you divide all of their words up into a set of letter pairs, such as “al,” “id,” and “ts.” Imagine that you write each letter pair on a card, so that “al” is on one card, “id” is on another, and so on. If the letter pair “id” appears five hundred times in the community’s tweets, there would be five hundred cards with “id” written on them. Now imagine that you shuffle those cards thoroughly and stack them in a deck. Follow the same process with other Twitter communities, so that each deck of cards corresponds to a distinct community. Researchers’ analysis suggests that there would be large and noticeable differences in how often various letter pairs appear in each of the decks. The differences would be so large that it almost impossible that they are the result of chance. What does this mean? Looking just at letter pairs, taken completely out of context, there are big differences between different communities. There are also, as suggested above, big differences in 3-letter word-endings. Different communities don’t just use different words; they also use different language patterns. Their tweets look and sound noticeably different. These differences in language make it seem more reasonable to refer to these different communities as distinct “tribes.”
What if researchers looked at the Twitter community composed of people who are actively engaged with the work of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner? This is my community, so I would be curious what the researchers would discover. No doubt, there are certain words and hashtags that our community uses more often than other communities do. For example, just like Bieber fans use the word “Bieber” more often, I have little doubt that we more often use the words “LaBeouf,” “Rönkkö,” and “Turner.” We also more frequently use hashtags such as “#TAKEMEANYWHERE” and “#INTRODUCTIONS.” Do we, as a community, also more frequently use certain words that are not proper nouns? Do we, like many Twitter tribes, also have distinct language patterns? Do we sound different? I have no way to answer these questions, but the work of the researchers discussed above does suggest that the answer to all of these questions might well be “yes.”
Still, suppose our word choices and language patterns do not straightforwardly distinguish us as a tribe that is distinct from other tribes. Nevertheless, I would still suspect that there are a number of ways in which it is metaphorically true that those who are engaged with the artists’ work “speak the same language.” Likewise, I suspect it is metaphorically true that the language of people who either are sincerely engaged with the artists’ work – or who one could easily imagine becoming sincerely engaged – is different from the language used by other people.
Linguists note that people sometimes change how they talk or write based on their audience. For example, scholars might send text messages to friends in which, for the sake of speed, they omit vowels from words or use number and letter homophones. But when those same scholars write to people they don’t know, they might commit themselves to traditional grammar. Similarly, people who are engaged with the work of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner might, at least metaphorically, speak the same language when they are together, and speak very differently when apart. Likewise, those who engage with the artists’ work might never consciously think of themselves as part of a common group or tribe until they meet and start sharing the same language.
Rachel has remarked that she felt that #TAKEMEANYWHERE, while in progress, had a certain rhythm or vibe that all of its participants picked up as they engaged with it. She writes that participating in the project “sort of felt like jamming with very accomplished musicians.” Rachel writes, “I feel that those three are so good at what they do that it allows for nearly anyone who’s willing to play with them to make some beautiful music.” So in what sense do all the participants and artists in #TribeLRT speak the same language? They speak the same language in the same way that good jazz musicians speak the same language. Even if they haven’t read the same books or don’t share the same ideas or worldviews, they can all jam together, regardless.
There is another sense in which everyone in #TribeLRT speaks the same language. They all – strictly metaphorically – speak what I’ll call the “metamodern dialect.” Vermeulen and van den Akker are clear that metamodernism is neither a philosophy nor a movement. These two scholars mean to describe the current sensibility expressed by many contemporary artworks, but they do not intend to make any claims about how art should be done or about how life should be lived. They are not claiming that art ought to be metamodern. They also suggest that, in metamodernism, there are no hard and fast rules, like one might imagine in a philosophical system. Rather, Vermeulen has suggested that we might – at least metaphorically – better think of metamodernism as a kind of dialect. We might think of metamodernism as a way that many artists “talk.” We might imagine that metamodernism has a broad-ranging sort of grammar and vocabulary which artists employ in their work, and which can’t be set down in a hard-and-fast set of rules. If imagined this way, we might think that many people in our society – not just artists – share this common dialect. We might also say that a great many artists also speak this dialect, even if some artists’ work expresses it more clearly than others.
Further, some people who speak with this dialect might be particularly drawn to certain artists whose art expresses it particularly well. Just like people who speak with a specific dialect might prefer some poets with that dialect over others, so too some people who “speak” the “metamodern dialect” prefer the work of some artists over others. I’d like to think of #TribeLRT as metaphorically composed of tribespeople who speak the metamodern dialect, and who are particularly drawn to the work of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner.