‘Imagined Community’ applied to weblogs

One of my favourite philosophical themes is the the notion of nation, and how nations are created. Some argue they have been around forever, but currently the academic consensus rests on the idea that the concept of nation, or nationhood, was created during the Industrial Revolution partly as a kind of parasitical response to the faltering position of religion.

Benedict Anderson

Benedict Anderson (above) is a guy who wrote a fairly optimistic and fascinating book on this subject called “Imagined Communities”.

In the rest of the post I will attempt to describe the position of weblogs within Mr. Anderson’s discourse.

First off, I’d like to link to a very interesting interview in which he gives a rather sweet reply to the question “You wrote Imagined Communities in the 1980s. What would you have written in the preface of – let’s say a new edition in 2006?“:

Well, it’s a book I wrote when I was 45. That’s nearly 25 years ago. I have a relationship to that book as to a daughter who has grown up and run off with a bus driver: I see her occasionally but, really, she has gone her own merry way. I can wish her good luck, but now she belongs with someone else. What would I change in the book? Well, should I try to change my daughter?

It appears that Benedict may have abandoned his book, but not the subject. When asked about nationalism losing ground due to globalization, he replies:

That’s exactly what I don’t believe. Think about long-distance nationalism, email/Internet nationalism. In my lecture I referred to exiled Argentinians’ websites. These are extremely nationalistic and are purely about Argentina. Think of the Norwegian schools in Spain, it’s crazy: The only reason for their existence is that people fear that their children will stop being Norwegian. The Norwegian schools take Norway to Spain. That is the best evidence available that nationalism has gone mobile.

While he doesn’t mention weblogs, it’s kind of obvious how they fit in with his take on the nation. One only has to read We Are Iran to see how members of a nation reach out to one another regardless of physical distance. In Imagined Communities Anderson argues that since no member of a large community like a nation has met or knows all other members, the community spirit must be a creative, imagined process. He states that in the 19th century print media contributed heavily to the people’s perception of nation. A common language binds the members of a nation, and sets it apart from other nations. Symbols (like flags) all inspire the feeling of being part of a larger, unseen whole while not knowing most of the rest of that whole.

Later on radio, television and so on continued to support nationhood when news and programming continued to reaffirm these boundaries (domestic news versus international news). Major events like sports or elections are widely covered by media and contribute to the concept of nation as well.

Now it seems we are in a turbulent era of grass roots (online) activity and the imagined community of nation is thriving as never before. People blog in their own language (Farsi, in the case of the Iranians) and get their software in their own language. Major sites like Google are available in tons of languages, some mockingly? non-existent. Large American political blogs mainly focus on American foreign and domestic policy as a country, maintaining the concept of the community as a whole.

Apart from imagining the nation, many bloggers also view themselves as part of an imagined community, namely the blogosphere. Its unifying language could be the sincerity of the blogger’s voice and the rebellious lack of censorship. Activist bloggers attempt to set up boundaries by denouncing the “Big Media”. Free speech is their flag.

Curiously enough, in 1997 Anderson already perceived resistance against “the global village”. While he was clearly not versed in the ways of the online world he did know of several examples of people from Indonesia, Thailand and Argentina who cling on to their own online communities in their own language who had only minimal desire to communicate with people outside their own country. He observes that the people living abroad are the most fanatically nationalistic, most likely because they want to retain their identity as a member of their native country.

Weblogs are simply the next tool that some people embrace to establish their identity as a member of a (larger) community. Blogrolls help to map that community, as does linking to eachother’s posts. I tend to agree with Anderson that this technology will very likely continue to serve isolationist imagined communities, especially in maintaining and amplifying them.

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