‘Imagined Community’ applied to weblogs

On: October 15, 2006
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About Pepijn Uitterhoeve
I'm Pepijn, a veteran Utopia player (and gamer in general). I intend to write my master thesis on Utopia, and focus mainly on the cooperative aspects. Some more stuff about me may be found here: http://peppie.wordpress.com/about/

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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 (right) 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.

24 Responses to “‘Imagined Community’ applied to weblogs”
  • October 18, 2006 at 7:59 pm

    I am very curious about your conclusion that Anderson’s Imagined Communities book is”optimistic”. The homogeneity of ideological orientation that is effected by media — like the newspaper, for Anderson — and related formations, like nationalism, are typically identified as the carriers for fascism and intense affective and cognitive de-individuation. Where is the optimism?

  • October 19, 2006 at 3:12 pm

    Its optimistic compared to other (contemporary) books. If you read the interview you can see how Anderson actually likes nationalism for the most part, and that it has a positive effect. The whole idea that he feels nationhood is a imaginative, creative process is already more optimistic than people who put their emphasis on the fascist approach

    He sees nationalism as something that helps society:

    “In Anderson’s opinion nationalism even contributes to a better society. It makes people behave better because they are members of a society: ” (from the interview)

    He argues for instance that people are more inclined to follow society’s rules because these are *their* rules. In such a way, an ‘us’-feeling has a positive effect.

    Regardless, I am personally not at all a fan of nationalism, but I can fully appreciate a positive outlook on whatever subject. Thanks for your comment!

  • October 20, 2006 at 5:12 am

    There’s something that I think is missing here in terms of fitting blogs/the blogosphere in with Anderson’s ideas. He talks about mass media (ideally the newspaper, but he also mentions fiction [and probably other stuff I'm forgetting; it's been a while since I've read it]) as something that fosters illusions (imaginings) of familiarity amongst a population – feelings of similarity, shared time and experience, fixity of self- and other- identites in time and space. The paper tells you that everyone who reads it has experiences in common, and furthermore that everyone (in the community) reads it. This feeling isn’t based in reality but is created by the very production and circulation of the newspaper, which selectively represents events but then presents them as authoritatively “what happened” or “what matters” (if I read Anderson correctly).

    Blogs are very different in the kind of communities they create, and (I think) they end up affording groupings that are, in some way, far less imagined than those created by the mass media. Not only are they decentralized and fragmentary, but the blogosphere is a system of links – real links – between people, when you come down to it. People read what other people write, people provide links to other people, people comment on and interact around what is being done. This is discourse that’s actually happening, and it articulates relationships and identities that (I would argue) actually exist in a way that Anderson’s imagined ones do not. What that implies for the emergence and maintenance of nationalisms, I’m not sure.

    This is one of those funny paradoxes about the internet, at least if you think of it in the way that I do (which most people may not!): it seems, at first, that any kind of community would *epitomize* an imagined one. Yet in lots of ways, “communities” are more clearly articulated through online discourse. (Of course, this also depends on what you mean by “community”!)

    [There's also a chapter I've read by Steve Jones that applies Anderson to the internet: Jones, Steven G. 1997. The Internet and its Social Landscape, pp. 6-35 in Virtual Culture: Identity & Communication in Cybersociety. London: Sage.]

  • October 21, 2006 at 10:27 am

    I think an interesting question is if weblogs actually do promote ‘unimagined’ communities to a degree. For instance, you post here, but do you feel part of our community? And are you? Or turning it around, maybe there are read-only people who feel part of this community – they read our blog every day and are interested and active in the subject matter, but we haven’t a clue who they are since they don’t post comments. We know they exist because of the blogstats that show the unique views, and we must think they are in some ways part of our weblog researching community, but it is more imagined in a sense that we have no overview on who these people are, where they are from, what they are thinking.
    As such, we can define our blog as a community where over a hundred readers a day drink their fill on new media subjects, but we have to imagine most of these hundred people since we don’t know who everyone is. Nor do they.

    I share the opinion of many new media researchers that online communities aren’t ‘inferior’ or ‘less worthy’ than ‘RL communities’, but I do think that the term ‘imagined’ still applies to them. There is no way that the top blogs which have hundreds of thousands of unique hits aren’t forming a community that isn’t for the greater part imagined, just like a country where you have a community where mainly the loudmouths (such as media faces and politicians) provide actual tracable links to eachother while the silent majority imagines itself as part of this community but remain invisible (to eachother) nonetheless.

  • November 15, 2007 at 12:02 am

    I think his major discription of communities as imagined lacks some thing,it lacks the fact that nationalism is a fact in our very real sicieties(communities),otherwise why would we need our schools to be in foriegn countries?

  • September 11, 2008 at 3:15 pm

    sir, may i know more about the Imagine Communities especially the framework on how to use it. I want to use your philosophy; your notion on nation because I think with its idea, my motherland (Philippines) would really renew and refresh the nationalism spirit that it has. please sir. and for those who can help me in my thesis about nationalism, please help me for I want to make my thesis not just to expose Mr. Benedict Anderson’s notion on nation but i want to use it so that i can help my country through powerful and comprehensive application of his philosophy. Thank you and God bless.

    By the way, I am Mhel Dacillo from the Philippines. I am a seminarian from the Redemptorist.

  • November 3, 2009 at 12:21 pm

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    This has raised manty questions which i would love to hear an answer for,

    Thanks for bringing this up,

    Keep up the good work,

  • December 23, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    Humm… interesting,

    Keep up the good work,

    Thanks for bringing this up

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