Of nations and networks

How does the internet transmit and transform national identities? What are the implications of this exchange and absorption on knowledge and the 'rootedness' of communities? This second piece in the 're-birth of the nation?' series explores how these processes might provide the framework for an alternative globalisation. 


The homepage of En mi idioma [In my language], a social network encouraging the use of languages ‘marginalised’ on the Internet. 

Social networks have rewoven the very fabric of human relationships. They have transformed how we present ourselves, meet new people and stay in contact; how many friends and acquaintances we have and how we exchange words, jokes and ideas with them. When a profile is set up on a social network, the user must consider the sheer scope of people with whom it will connect them, no matter the distance, transport links, or import tariffs. A profile must portray a distinct, individual identity to stand out amid the billions of other digital personalities competing for recognition, bound together by a virtual web of interests, occupations and people. In this great web of abstract societies where nations and nationhood are diffused across interests and occupations, how does national identity manifest itself online and in what forms do social networking sites encourage this as a globalising characteristic – the exchange and absorption of ideas of national and cultural identity?

National identity and nationalism, argues Benedict Anderson, is a modern phenomena rooted in the 18th century. The “dawn of the age of nationalism” saw the cultivation of national heritage in the foundation of national monuments, museums and galleries. Yet, he asserts, it was largely consolidated by the tide of printing press in the vernacular, and applies the era’s increase in communication technology in ‘print-capitalism’ to how a sense of nationhood was cemented amongst populations. Print culture and the ‘imagined communities’ that it encouraged through newspapers, history books and travel journals, were rooted to the localities that produced them, enforcing a sense of national solidarity into the wider public. In 21st century communication technology, online social networks provide the tools to take this solidarity of nationhood out from its geographical insularity. No doubt, print culture sowed the seeds for such interaction in an age when its cybernetic descendant, our internet, was but a dot on inconceivable horizons; we only need look to those words of the Enlightenment that, bound and pressed, traversed the Atlantic in the 18th century and spawned revolutions in nations as culturally far removed (albeit imperially tied) as France, Haiti and the USA. Fast-forward to today, and the internet has propelled the potential for communication of ideas on nation into a literally boundless space. In terms of identity, it has provided a keyhole into what kind of ways ordinary people, given the chance, have adapted their notions of national identity to a cyber environment and also in what ways they are acknowledging and absorbing others.    

In 1996 the Economist featured an article that predicted the fate of language diversity in the fast-coming age of the World Wide Web. The internet, it expected, would provide an infinite and fertile breeding space for minority languages. The prediction was based on the research of Geoffrey Nunberg, whose cyber exploration had uncovered nuggets of linguistic communities; each conversation encountered, he dressed in perfect national stereotype:

The Italians were talking about elections, as they always do. The French people were exchanging dirty jokes. The Indonesians... were arguing about whether the movie “True Lies” was anti-Islam or merely stupid

Even in its infancy, the Internet, and its potential to dissolve national boundaries, was being utilised in such a way that showed people were given to connect and converse online within their own geographical sphere, perhaps more so than they were to reach across the globe for another national perspective. After all, would an Indonesian care for Italian elections, an Italian share risqué French humour; would French secularism relate to Islamic anxieties over a film? Language barriers aside, these were all manifestations of national identity thriving in World Wide chat forums. The question is whether chat room national stereotypes have transferred themselves onto the world of social networking, a cyber revolution not yet mobilised in 1996, and whether they have spread across or moulded online communities.

In 1999, Wired - the magazine for technology lovers - wrote ten internet usage principles. Number nine stated:

Go global: ...In these Webbed times, writing from a US centric perspective is hopelessly outdated... Writing with a global perspective means being cosmopolitan: enjoying the best of other cultures and tongues, and resisting the impulse to put foreign ideas and phrases through a bottom-feeder filter

The rule perfectly transcribes to social networks, and today there are a plethora of sites inviting new members to enjoy the very best (and most obscure) of global perspectives on common interests, from knitting and crochet (ravelry.com) to kinks and fetishes (fetlife.com). However, many more are designed to unite people according to common ethnicity (blackplanet.com for the African-American online community), class (asmallworld.net, a “private online community”), religion (xt3.com, “the fastest growing Catholic social network”) and sexuality (outeverywhere.com, “bringing gay people together since 1995”). Briefly exploring a handful of networks constructed under these non-nationalistic communities, I quickly found some interesting self-assertions of nationality arise from the general hub of international melting pots. The network, ArtDeviant, dedicated to connecting artists from the world over, revealed amateur poets, writers, and photographers profiling themselves against the international community by emphasising the importance of their own small corner of Planet Earth and their connection to it. Embi of the Isle of Mann wrote:

Stand up for Mann,

Even when others think I’m English,

Especially then. 

She follows with a call for Manx, Scottish or Irish speakers to connect with, an attitude reflecting Nunberg’s theory; internet users are likely to open up the Web as a gate into their own national, or even regional, back garden, rather than to connect with exotic peoples of afar. Yet, Embi is seeking international recognition of her little-recognised nationality; ArtDeviant offers her the opportunity to outline Manx as a different cultural sphere from English in the global community, not to be hemmed in by the preconceptions of mainland Britain. Manx identity can be received, acknowledged and appreciated by English speakers from Barbados to Brunei, far beyond the reaches of what any printing press could have allowed. Social networking sites based on cross-boundary interests provide even the most little known communities and regional identities with a launch pad from which to assert their status in international discussions.

This idea, that social networks give a voice to lost or unrecognised national, cultural or regional identities, should be taken further. These sorts of communities should be encouraged to mobilise themselves in the Digital Revolution and provided with the means to do so. In many cases, the effort is already being made to involve small indigenous communities in the digital world.  Colombian association, Colnado, runs projects to provide networks for Colombian citizens and organisations in order to exchange information and experiences on local, national and international levels. One of its current projects is working alongside a programme named ‘En MiIdioma’ [In My Language], which works to provide information technology to indigenous American communities from Canada to Peru in the hope that given the tools, languages on the brink of extinction may be revived through increased ability to openly publish and work in a public domain. The project, so far, has found success with the Inuit community in Canada and has extended itself to Latin America, for which the website provides links to lessons and publications in Misak and NasaYuwe, both indigenous Colombian communities. It lends itself as an example of Nunberg’s linguistic back garden prediction: yes, communities in 2011 still enjoy the internet as a virtual mirror in which to connect with their own society, region or nationality. But these back gardens need not be as exclusive as he predicted. The difference with social networks such as En Mi Idioma is that they are set up by the international community and largely supported by the UniversitatPolitècnica de Catalunya. As an institution of an autonomous community in Spain, it is given to empathise with and support others overseas, so that they too might promote their identities for international recognition.

The project demonstrates the ability of the social networks to function beyond the linguistically English-dominant giants like Facebook and Myspace, as do many others dedicated to uniting members of linguistic and ethnic communities. Vkontakte.org brings together Russian speakers and citizens of Soviet republics; qzone.qq.com is Facebook for China and South Korea, and biip.no is the national option for Norwegians. But clearly a language barrier continues to exist, so that sentiments of national identity might flourish in insular linguistic and regional environments. However, in the virtual world there exist few cultural and diplomatic barriers to impede a fairer exchange of ideas of nationality, and what they mean to the individual. With information technology on the increase, including development of sophisticated machine translators, the linguistic barriers to social networking (and indeed all information technology) will gradually crumble. Projects like En Mi Idioma can be nurtured so that they become common practise for indigenous and small communities in all developing countries. National or regional identities manifested in multi-lingual environments that are accessible to a wider demographic could become something to fuse international social relations together.

Social networks have already rewoven our personal relationships; now they need to work on knitting together the linguistically and nationally homogenous patches of today’s World Wide Web. Social networks, such as ArtDeviant and fetlife, already demonstrate how common interests can overrule national and linguistic differences whilst allowing individual assertions of those identities to shine through and be recognized and accepted by a wider community. Perhaps their relative success in achieving this lies in the non-language based interests to which they cater; as sites based on imageries of art and sexuality, they bypass the culturally homogenizing potentials inherent in language-based networking sites. This is not to suggest that those homogenous patches of the internet might be knitted together by an explosion of cyber-exhibitionism. Better said, international social networking sites based on imagery might allow for Nunberg’s national back gardens to flourish into colourful spectacles for the international online observer. In this way will social networks make of the internet a botanical garden, where expressions of national identity can display themselves in an unfenced, multi-national environment and, at the same time, remain true to the soils from whence they came. 

This piece is part of OurKingdom's series 'Re-birth of the nation? Challenging global citizens'. The above is an edited version of a paper delivered to the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy. 

About the author

Creator & manager of street children photography project in Mexico City www.streetchildrenphotogrpahy.wordpress.com Currently studying BA in History and Hispanic Studies at Liverpool University