SocNets and nation-states: a comparison

Via Bruce Sterling, a piece at The Economist compares Facebook’s population and social character to that of a nation-state:

In some ways, it might seem absurd to call Facebook a state and Mr Zuckerberg its governor. It has no land to defend; no police to enforce law and order; it does not have subjects, bound by a clear cluster of rights, obligations and cultural signals. Compared with citizenship of a country, membership is easy to acquire and renounce. Nor do Facebook’s boss and his executives depend directly on the assent of an “electorate” that can unseat them. Technically, the only people they report to are the shareholders.

But many web-watchers do detect country-like features in Facebook. “[It] is a device that allows people to get together and control their own destiny, much like a nation-state,” says David Post, a law professor at Temple University. If that sounds like a flattering description of Facebook’s “groups” (often rallying people with whimsical fads and aversions), then it is worth recalling a classic definition of the modern nation-state. As Benedict Anderson, a political scientist, put it, such polities are “imagined communities” in which each person feels a bond with millions of anonymous fellow-citizens. In centuries past, people looked up to kings or bishops; but in an age of mass literacy and printing in vernacular languages, so Mr Anderson argued, horizontal ties matter more.

Sterling himself describes it as “handwavey and misleading”, but there’s a core of pertinence: huge horizontal networks of people, disconnected from geographical restraints, with the potential for a self-sustaining internal economy. Facebook couldn’t play on the world stage just yet, but it’s early in the day for the network-as-collective-entity… and late in the evening for the nation-state.

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