Imaginary Islands, Cybernetic Cannibals, and NEO TRIBES

My latest thoughts on community building, republished from Medium

Founding Myths

I was born on the island of Taiwan, and I currently reside on the island of Manhattan. Both are terra firma, hard and fast granite bedrock.

But I also inhabit imaginary islands: online groups, forums, and other virtual places which bring to mind the dated term, “cyberspace.” Here I commune with like-minded souls with shared interests.

Other imaginary islands exist in the physical realm, but they are ethereal and fleeting in time. Festivals and conferences bring together communities of shared interest for a set period of time. Then we disperse. We may reconvene after an interval or fork forever into smaller cells distributed around the world.

My fellow humans on these imaginary islands are neotribalists. We equally reject the rigidity of traditional tribalism as well as the isolation of industrial individualism.

We form imaginary islands as safe spaces for our freak flags to fly free. Imaginary islands are unbounded by physical distance, as we unite with others of mutual interest and shared spirit across geographies. We form archipelagos of fellowship across expanses. Our imaginary islands can be open to everyone or hidden to all but insiders.

The Truku (also known as the Taroko) people of Taiwan have a saying, “the land is blood, the mountain is home.” The Hawaiians have a related saying, “He ali’i ka ‘āina, he kauā ke kanaka.” The land is a chief; man is its servant. These sayings reflect the indigenous worldview where the land owns the people and not the other way around.

But what happens when the “land” that we inhabit is virtual? What happens when we inhabit imaginary islands, shifting cartographies made up of networks andrhizomes in perpetual flux? We craft our communities, our imaginary islands, with intention. How do we belong to these artificial lands. How do our imaginary islands shape us and own us?

Tupi, or Not Tupi

To answer these questions, we will need new stories, new myths, and new truths. We need new stars to guide our way and to connect the far-flung archipelagos of our imaginary islands. We will need to construct new chimera: new combinations and reconfigurations, new ways of doing and of being.

We the neotribers, the inhabitants of imaginary islands, are like cybernetic cannibals, in the spirit of Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade’s Cannibalist Manifesto (Manifesto antropofágico).

We adapt, appropriate, and remix from a variety of cultural sources. One of the iconic lines of Andrade’s manifesto is “Tupi, or not to Tupi,” a linguistic pun that brings together references Shakespeare and to the Tupi indigenous peoples of Brazil.

In a discussion of cybernetic cannibalism, Lawrence Lessig explains:

we could describe it using modern computer terminology as kind of read-write culture. It’s a culture where people participate in the creation and in the re-creation of their culture. In that sense is read-write.

In this sense, as we are reading and writing our culture, we are terraforming the imaginary islands that we inhabit.

Lessig’s idea of a read-write culture echoes Henry Jenkins’ concept of participatory culture:

For the moment, let’s define participatory culture as one:

1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement

2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others

3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices

4. Where members believe that their contributions matter

5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).

May the neotribes that we form aspire to be participatory cultures.

Dreamers and Doers

As neotribers, let us dream big but also stay rooted in pragmatism.

Bruce Lee taught us: “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”

This teaching echoes the motto Wakon-yōsai (和魂洋才 “Japanese spirit and Western techniques”) from Meiji-era Japan. The island nation had just emerged from centuries of self-imposed isolation. It found itself vulnerable to Western colonialist powers with superior technology. The motto was an invocation to adopt new methodologies and new technologies while preserving a spirit that was authentic and grounded in “Japaneseness.”

Of course, there are many ways to critique and deconstruct notions of cultural authenticity, but the point I am trying to make is, how do we adopt or create new technologies and new ways of organizing ourselves that reflect the spirit to which we aspire?

The recently-departed activist Grace Lee-Boggs reminds us: “We need to grow our souls.” Activism and philosophy must work together in tandem.


Back in 1977, Marshall McLuhan warned of the violent tribalism of the global village. He derided this tribalism for being “collective and without any individual consciousness.” But we have also seen that individualism taken to an extreme can lead to loneliness and alienation. May neotribes find a middle way in between these extremes.

We can learn from the new nationalisms like the Scottish and Catalan sovereignty movements. While they reject the status quo of the nation states in which they are currently a part, they simultaneously embrace a united Europe and membership in a larger international community. These are nationalisms with more open access to identity and belonging. They eschew the old violent tribalism of blood and soil. Neotribes aspire to be both grounded in the local and connected to the global.

We acknowledge that our blood is mixed, are cultures are mixed. Our destinies are intertwined.

When talking about neotribes, we must be careful not to fall into the old traps of neo-colonial “primitivism.” None of that “noble savage” narrative here please. We must learn to incorporate without (mis)appropriating. We must decolonize and deconstruct ourselves first in order to build something new. We must first empty our cups.

By imaginary islands, I mean “of the imagination.” We are communities of shared interest who dare to dream, who dare to explore, who dare to imagine what might be possible. We must be careful not to allow our imaginary islands to become pure escapism. We must also engage with other communities and tribes outside of our own, to negotiate the global commons and the other shared spaces of our common humanity.

In the Polynesian legends of the Māori of New Zealand and the of native Hawaiians, the ancestral homeland is called Hawaiki. Some anthropologists think that Hawaiki refers to Taiwan. But the truth about Hawaiki is lost to history and immortalized in myth.

In other legends, Hawaiki is also the underworld or the world of the spirits. In other words, Hawaiki is an imaginary island, a utopia, a “no place,” an imagined place. A destination always a bit past the threshold and out of reach, but a perpetually in our hearts and minds.

Our imaginary islands, the homelands of our neotribes, are like Hawaiki. We belong to these islands, and we belong to each other.

Learn more about Neotribes here, and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter. What do “community” and “neotribes” mean to you?

Future of Community Panel


Thursday, May 21

Future of Community – How Nonprofits and Businesses Are Engaging Audiences to Grow Their Impact

I have one comp ticket to give away, first come first serve. Otherwise, use code BSC25 to get 25% off.


Eli Malinsky, Executive Director, Centre for Social Innovation

David Spinks​, CEO, CMX Media

Kristin Hodgson​, Communications Director, Meetup

Sarah Judd Welch​, CEO/Head of Community Design, Loyal

Marcos Salazar​, Co-Founder + Executive Director, Be Social Change

Lee-Sean Huang, Co-Founder / Creative Director, Foossa

More information and registration>>



WeWashing is a new term that refers to the abuse of words like “sharing” and “community.” Use #WeWashing to identify and critique this abuse.

Whitewash, Greenwash, WeWash

I am usually a satisfied user of services like AirBnb and Uber, even if I don’t 100% agree with all of their corporate policies and practices. But I cringe every time I hear these companies, and others like it, described as part of the “Sharing Economy.”

New technologies can extend the meaning of words, such as “friend” in a post-Facebook world. But for the sake of clarity, new social phenomena also require us to coin new terms for them. Given the expanding use and abuse of terms like “community” and “sharing,” I would like to propose a new term: WeWashing.

Based on terms like whitewashing and greenwashing, WeWashing is when corporations, brands, and other groups use the language of “sharing” and “community” to describe what are essentially capitalist commercial transactions.

Whitewash: when organizations cover up or gloss over their misdeeds, scandals, or negative facts about them.

Greenwash: when organizations use “green” marketing or public relations techniques to communicate an environmentally-friendly image that contrast with the reality of their products, policies, or practices.

WeWash: when organizations refer to renting and selling services as “sharing” and/or use terms like “community” in misleading ways.

We Are Greater Than Our Consumer Selves

In his recent speech at the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches, President Obama points out:

[T]he single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” “We The People.” “We Shall Overcome.” “Yes We Can.” That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone.

Words like “we,” “sharing” and “community” may be common, but they are also meaningful. These words are reminders that we are part of something greater than ourselves. As community members and citizens, we share common bonds and common interests. We are more than consumers. We interact in ways that go beyond commercial transactions.

“We the people.”

Not “We the Monarch.”

Not “We the corporation.”

Not even “We the consumers.”

Our “we” is the “we” of true community, of collaboration, and the shared commons. It is not the “we” of royal or corporate decree.

Our shared language is itself a form of cultural commons that is owned by no one and belongs to everyone. As such, so-called “sharing economy” companies are free to use these words as they like, but we are also free to use them in ways that work for us. We can create our own forms of meaning. We can mold and adapt the language to coin terms like WeWashing.

Now that we have a word for this phenomenon that affects our reality, we can draw attention to it. We can engage in dialog about the pros and cons of “micro entrepreneurship” and the so-called “sharing economy. We can differentiate the “renting economy” from true sharing.

The Rectification of Names

The Rectification of Names (正名) is a doctrine in Confucian philosophy that argues that, for the good of society, we need to call things by their correct and proper names. We need to call a spade a spade. If we can name and identify a problematic phenomenon, we can call it out more easily and take actions to deconstruct it.

For example, by calling discrimination “discrimination,” we are able to take actions to combat it. By coining the term, “environmentalism,” we were able to unite different causes such as air pollution, water contamination, and animal habitat preservation under the umbrella of a single movement.

By calling out incidents of WeWashing, we can preserve the meaning of altruistic sharing and the bonds of community beyond narrowly-defined economic transactions. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with buying, selling, and renting to and from one another, but we should rectify our language to separate these kinds of transactions and relationships with ones that are not tied to narrowly capitalist forms of exchange. There is nothing wrong with “friending” or “following” as social media conventions, but we also need ways to differentiate these relationships from deeper forms of friendship or fandom.

At best, the “sharing economy” label is a brand marketing strategy that attempts to take advantage of the “feel good” halo associated with words like “community” and “sharing.” At worst, it is a way of obfuscating commercial transactions as “sharing” as a way of evade the reach of regulation and oversight. This is why we need to rectify the names of explicitly commercial transactions that get labelled as “sharing.”

The idea behind coining the term WeWashing is not meant to create an exclusive binary between “real” sharing and “fake” sharing, “real” community and “fake” community, but to draw attention to the fact that a spectrum exists. My life has been enriched by my experiences in the so-called “sharing economy,” beyond what I paid for the services. I have met Uber drivers from places ranging from Tibet to Mauritania, and they have shared with me about their countries and cultures, enriching my understanding of the world. An AirBnB hostess invited me into her family dinner, making me feel instantly at home in a new place. The fact that these were in the context of commercial transactions and relationships did not diminish their meaning.

However, we need to recognize that there are different kinds of sharing and different kinds of community, just as with the concept of “green,” where we recognize that there is a spectrum of “sustainability.” Some products are greener than others, just as some communities are more selflessly “sharing” than others. We need to keep each other honest about where on the spectrum something falls.

Let’s Hack the Language and Take Action

WeWashingas a term enhances our vocabulary and enables us to identify, critique, and engage in dialogue about the misleading use and abuse of terms like “sharing” and “community.” Let’s drop it into our conversations and use it as a hashtag online to call out this phenomenon.

Writing this post and coining the term “WeWashing” is not just a language hack; it is also a cultural intervention and invitation to reflect. It is ultimately not about demonizing corporations who appropriate the language of community and sharing. As my colleague Garance Choko puts it:

The issue is not with corporations co-opting these terms, but more so for us to reclaim how we abide to our “ideal” notion of solidarity, sharing and community.

We must ask ourselves how we can expand the possibilities of the “we.”How should we treat each other? How can we collaborate and cooperate beyond the narrow confines of the marketplace?

Originally published on Medium

The Future of Community

I will be a panelist at the Future of Community Internet Week discussion organized by Be Social Change and hosted by MeetUp on May 20. Register here and get a discount using the code “CommunityPanelFriend.”


Join Be Social Change on Tuesday, May 20th at 7:00PM for a panel discussion on The Future of Community Building as we explore the trends, challenges, and best practices in the art of building community.

Building and maintaining meaningful relationships with current and potential customers, employees, supporters, and neighbors is becoming a central imperative for organizations big and small. Gone are the days of simply marketing at customers, today’s thriving businesses are focused on inviting the public into conversations and into their communities.

Why are more and more companies prioritizing community building as a key part of their growth and impact strategies? What tools and techniques are being used to effectively engage and activate customers? How can online communities bolster in person communities and vice versa?And what is “community management” anyway? From likers and retweeters to C level strategists, how and why is the role of community manager evolving to become increasingly essential to organizations across sectors?

{Drinks and snacks will be provided!}

Join the conversation on Twitter #FutureOfCommunity

@besocialchange | @marcossalazar | @csisl | @leesean@davidspinks | @meetup | @heidisloane

6:30-7:00 PM – Doors open, Arrive

7:00-8:30 PM – Panel Discussion + Q&A

8:30-9:00 PM – Networking


Marcos Salazar, Co-Founder + Executive Director, Be Social Change

Marcos is a social entrepreneur, educator, and community builder. He is the co-founder and Executive Director of Be Social Change, a New York City based non-profit on a mission to educate and connect the next generation of change makers.Previously, Marcos was the Vice President of Programs at The White House Project as well as former Technology Strategist and Leadership Researcher for Girl Scouts of the USA. He is the author of The Turbulent Twenties Survival Guide, an expert speaker on the psychology of life after college, Gen Y, and Millennial topics, a former elected official in New York City as well as owns two hyperlocal clothing companies, BoroThreads and DistrictTees, in New York City and Washington, DC.

Eli Malinsky, Executive Director, Centre for Social Innovation

Eli has been a champion of collaboration and innovation in the social sector for the past ten years. A deep believer in the potential of ‘everyday people’ to create social change, Eli’s work is centered on new models that unleash creativity and catalyze impact. Eli has spoken and published works on networks, collaboration, social enterprise, shared space and social innovation. He is currently Executive Director of the Centre for Social Innovation in New York City. The Centre for Social Innovation is a coworking space, community and launchpad for nonprofits and social entrepreneurs.

Lee-Sean Huang, Co-Founder + Creative Director, Foossa

Lee-Sean is the co-founder and creative director of Foossa. He is also affiliated with Purpose, where he has worked as a designer, strategist, and now as an advisor. He has devoted his career to working with social enterprises, nonprofits, and communities to create transformative experiences for positive social change. He has collaborated with organizations including:, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, the SEIU, Creative Commons, Made in the Lower East Side, and Afro Brazil Arts. Lee-Sean holds a Bachelor’s degree in Government from Harvard and a Master’s degree from the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University.

David Spinks, CEO, CMX Media

David is the CEO of CMX Media, a brand dedicated to improving the community industry through its publication: CMXHub and its event: CMXSummit. David has spent his career building startups and communities and a couple of them didn’t even completely fail. He cofounded Feast, and BlogDash and built communities for companies like LeWeb, Zaarly, Udemy and SeatGeek. Today he’s working to build the leading community of community professionals. Super meta!

Andrea Murphy, Community Team Manager, Meetup

Andrea is the Community Team Manager at Meetup where she is responsible for managing support operations and scaling support tools and resources for the world’s largest network of local groups. Andrea has built out and managed chapter models for local Meetup Organizer Groups as well as organizations interested in fostering local community around their brand. She recently spoke at UserConf NYC (2013) about How to Get Feedback into the Development Process by creating a user-centered culture and community within your company.


Heidi Sloane, Strategy & Community, Be Social Change + miLES

Driving community engagement and strategy at Be Social Change, Heidi is committed to connecting passionate, talented individuals to other people, projects and ideas that will amplify impact, lead to electric conversations, or result in inspired collaborations. Having studied social entrepreneurship at NYU, Heidi has been working with early stage non-profits, startups, and social projects since graduating in 2012. On top of her work with Be Social Change, she manages community and communication for a startup social enterprise, miLES (Made In The Lower East Side). She previously worked with Lean Startup Machine and was inspired by how lean startup can be used as a powerful tool by change makers tackling social and environmental issues. Since joining the BSC team, she has been working to adapt lean startup methodology to be more accessible and applicable in the social good space; she co-teaches the Makers Institute class series “Lean Startup for Social Good.”

Meetup is the world’s largest network of local groups.
Their mission is to revitalize local community and help people around the world self-organize. Meetup believes that people can change their personal world, or the whole world, by organizing themselves into groups that are powerful enough to make a difference. More than 9,000 groups get together in local communities each day, each one with the goal of improving themselves or their communities.


Be Social Change is a community-driven nonprofit on a mission to educate and connect the next generation of change makers. Through entrepreneurship education, community-building, and resource-sharing tools we empower people from all sectors and industries to pursue work they are passionate about and create lives that make the world a better place. Our vision is to create a world where every entrepreneur is a social entrepreneur, every career is an impact-driven career, and every business is a socially-conscious business. Join us in making this vision a reality.