Thoughts, links, and essays from Peter Merholz
petermescellany   petermemes


Archives before June 13, 2001

RSS Feed

Adaptive Path (my company!)

About peterme

Most of the Time
Oakland, CA

American history around the time of the Revolution, figuring out how to marry top-down task-based information architecture processes with bottom-up document-based ones, finding a good dentist in San Francisco Oakland
Designing the user experience (interaction design, information architecture, user research, etc.), cognitive science, ice cream, films and film theory, girls, commuter bicycling, coffee, travel, theoretical physics for laypeople, single malt scotch, fresh salmon nigiri, hanging out, comics formalism, applied complexity theory, Krispy Kreme donuts.

Click to see where I wander.

Wish list
Show me you love me by
buying me things.

Track updates of this page with Spyonit. Clickee here.

[Editor's note: began as a site of self-published essays, a la Stating The Obvious. This evolved (or devolved) towards link lists and shorter thoughtpieces. These essays are getting a tad old, but have some good ideas.]
Reader Favorites
Interface Design Recommended Reading List
Whose "My" Is It Anyway?
Frames: Information Vs. Application

Interface Design
Web Development
Movie Reviews

What's your urban tribe? Posted on 04/21/2002.

Clicking around on that there "Web", engaged in what one used to quaintly call "surfing", I came across a site promoting the forthcoming book Urban Tribes. I was struck by how well the author's thesis describes me:

You may be like me: between the ages of 25 and 39, single, a college-educated city dweller. If so, you may have also had the unpleasant experience of discovering that you have been identified (by the U.S. Census Bureau, no less) as one of the fastest-growing groups in America -- the ''never marrieds.'' In less than 30 years, the number of never-marrieds has more than doubled, apparently pushing back the median age of marriage to the oldest it has been in our country's history -- about 25 years for women and 27 for men.

Made me consider what my "Urban Tribe" was. I don't seem to have one as quite well-defined as what the author is seeking--I have no group with whom I hang out with any predictable frequency or regularity, though I have a large network of friends that keeps me sane. A smaller subgroup I definitely see more often, though not in anything remotely "tribal". That larger network, my "tribe", I suppose, tends to come from a few groups: folks from college (though this group has now spread out geographically widely), folks from "the web industry" in San Francisco (the predominant sector of my tribe), folks from the "information architecture/user experience" field of practice (this group is farther flung), and, to some extent, folks who publish personal websites, commonly referred to as "weblogs".

I also wonder just how special the notion of "Urban Tribe" is. Something tells me that such a phenomenon has existed for awhile, if never identified. I mean, back in the 50s, my dad didn't marry. He didn't meet my mom until 1959, when he was 28. He was working in "show business" in L.A., and it probably wasn't uncommon to not get hitched too young, as you tried to "make it." I think it would be interesting to look at such antecedents to urban tribalism, and figure out common threads (maybe the quest for "making it", a la Mary Tyler Moore, is a key ingredient... Are we "never marrieds" longer because more of us are attempting to achieve goals that would be encumbered by committed relationships? I don't know. Thinking out loud here. Anyway, check out the site, see what you think.

7 comments so far. Add a comment.

Previous entry: "Changing Lanes"
Next entry: "The cobbler's child gets a new pair of shoes."


i don't care if you get married, but could you please give me a couple of grandchildren? also, you need a companion so you won't get lonely and you will have someone to cuddle with after i'm gone.
Posted by julie @ 04/22/2002 10:00 AM PST [link to this comment]

You know what century you're in when relatives use a weblog discussion thread to noodge you to provide grandchildren!

Some things change, some things stay the same.
Posted by Adina @ 04/22/2002 10:36 AM PST [link to this comment]

While I think the idea of the Urban Tribe has merit, I think you're also right in questioning whether this is really a 'new' idea or phenomenon.

If I squint my memory just right, I could say that I was part of a nascent
Tribe in my last year or so in Calgary - several of us who'd met through
work, roommates, and mutual friends became a sort of 'core group' who
would predictably 'hang out'. We were all college educated, single
(though dates would rotate through), and pursuing some sort of profession
/ career track that we could visualize as connecting the different jobs
and contracts we'd have at any time. What I noticed, though, is that when
people would become part of a 'permanent' couple, they would often move
into another kind of tribe - that of 'couple-friends', or groups of
married/committed couples who would engage in activities together.

Now, I would bet my anthropological-butt that neither the singles-tribe or
the couples- tribe is a new thing... maybe what is new is that we
'never-marrieds' are staying in the singles-tribes much longer, becoming
over-educated, literate, and self-important so we think we've created
something revolutionary. I also have never experienced anything as 'tidy'
as Watters describes - really cohesive units seem to be counter to the
reality of changing jobs, moving around, and interacting virtually that we
single-folk in the late 20's experience. I've never felt particularly
familial with friends, even in multiple roommate situations where you'd
think a family dynamic might develop.

I see there being two main 'relationship' factors in the 'never-marrieds
phenomenon' - one which Watters hits on and another which he doesn't. The
first is the 'soul-mate' concept - where did this term come from, anyway?
What exactly does it mean? Is it some sort of naturalized notion of the
"knight in shining armour" concept that our mothers somehow knew was
disconnected from reality? The second factor that I don't think Watters
grasps (or at least mentions) comes from feminism. Most of us born after
1970 grew up being convinced that to get married young and have children
was somehow selling ourselves short. This is related to your questioning
about certain professional choices and goals. While most of us have
figured out that we don't have to choose between marriage+family and a
fulfilling career, we do want to establish some level of professional,
financial, and intellectual independence before committing our hearts and
procreating. This takes more than four years of college to do. And maybe
the idealistic 'soul-searching' males are figuring out that these
post-feminist women are worth waiting a little longer for.
Posted by StacyK @ 04/22/2002 03:32 PM PST [link to this comment]

Well---"tribes" is becoming just another mis-used and therefore meanlingless word to current pseudo-societal semanticists. The only real meaning of tribe describes a group of people who share the same ancestors. These members are assumed to be locked into a blood and cultural relationship that separates and distinguishes them from other tribes, even those that closely neighbor them. You can't create a tribe through mutuality of interest ot even proximity. You can become part of a team, join a clique or share an ideology, but you can only be born into a tribe. To use that term to describe changable and ephemeral relationships is only phoniness in an attempt to sell a bill of goods, or book, to someone, and avoids dealing with some of the critical and mortal issues of tribalism in our world today.
Posted by BJMe @ 04/22/2002 09:25 PM PST [link to this comment]

Lovely. Nice to know I have a tribe, I suppose.

When I was a kid in the 80's hanging out at the mall (as one did), there was a display with an advertisement featuring a sad looking girl and the statement "having a child is like being grounded for 18 years." At what age are we supposed to decide we would like to be grounded for 18 years?

I'm not sure what that has to do with anything, I've just always wanted to ask that question.
Posted by Tanya @ 04/22/2002 10:01 PM PST [link to this comment]

I've thought more about this, particularly after my dad's post. And, of course, dad is right. This isn't really a "tribe", and the use of the word is obviously an attempt to tap into some kind of urban 'edginess', perhaps akin to modern primitivism, or to make the folks who belong to these groups feel more warranted for their "abnormal" behavior.

The thing being, I don't think such groups should feel at all slighted... The website's copy takes a somewhat defensive stance (along the lines of, "Yeah, we're not married... So?!"), which I think is unnecessary.

I *do* think the author is hitting upon an Interesting Phenomenon. I agree with the basic premise that Something Interesting Is Afoot. I just don't know if the author has really put his finger on What It Is.
Posted by peterme @ 04/22/2002 11:11 PM PST [link to this comment]

In my circles it's long been said that we have two families, the one that we're born with, and the one that we choose. Perhaps this is a function of a highly mobile society, my immediate genetic family is scattered across the country, which is a coalescing of sorts, and maybe it's part of modern communications giving me an expanded vision of what's possible, leading me to realize that the rituals and world views of my birth tribe are not the ones that match my aspirations.

I've never been a hip urban dweller, and I don't need a book to give me a sense of identity, but I can identify with Ethan Watters sense of his target audience: My friends and I tend to turn to each other rather than our genetic relatives in times of emotional or economic need; the child-free play "uncle" to the kids of friends, helping with homework and spoiling them in ways that grandparents and siblings of the parents traditionally did for the previous generation; many (although not all) of my friends disdain marriage as an artifact of an obsolete cultural system, and look to those couples that die within weeks of each other (like my elderly neighbors just did) as remnants of a co-dependence and loss of self that we don't need to particpate in.

And I too watch other people struggle with some of the cultural preferences against these attitudes in places like the Alternatives To Marriage Project, and wonder if this struggle hasn't always existed, and I'm just aware of it because I'm part of it.
Posted by Dan Lyke @ 04/24/2002 10:14 AM PST [link to this comment]

Add A New Comment:


E-Mail (optional)

Homepage (optional)

Comments Now with a bigger box for text entry! Whee!

All contents of are © 1998 - 2002 Peter Merholz.