SNSs and national identity

By: Annet Bos
On: October 2, 2011
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About Annet Bos
Master student New Media after finishing the bachelor Media and Culture @ UvA | MediaLAB student 2010 | interested in how new media affect soceity | entrepreneurship | field hockey player | travel addict


Social network sites (SNSs) are more and more drawing the attention of academic researchers, fascinated by their affordances and influence. The most common methodology of researching SNSs, besides on the topic of privacy, is that of identity-management.

While websites dedicated to communities of interest still exist and prosper, SNSs are primarily organized around people, not interests. Early public online communities such as Usenet and public discussion forums were structured by topics or according to topical hierarchies, but social network sites are structured as personal (or ‘‘egocentric’’) networks, with the individual at the center of their own community. This more accurately mirrors unmediated social structures, where ‘‘the world is composed of networks, not groups’’ (Wellman, 1988, p. 37). The introduction of SNS features has introduced a new organizational framework for online communities, and with it, a vibrant new research context.” (boyd & Ellison 2007)

As stated in this quote, the focus of identity management in the computer-mediated communication discourse is on the individual. Social network sites allow individuals to consciously be able to construct an online representation of self. They establish a significant research context for scholars examining the process of impression management and self-presentation. As many researches there are on this individual side of identity (management), as little there are on the group identity in the context of CMC and social network sites. Because the term group is rather ambiguous, I prefer to specify it down to nationality as a form of geo-political identity.

The American anthropologist and political scientist Benedict Anderson claims identity is relative, subjective and variable. His ideas are that if people want to belong to a group, they create a group identity based on a common history, background and language. By shaping and maintaining these ‘imagined communities’, they create a communal sense which is mainly constructed and presented by the media. National and collective cultural identity may not be seen so often in social network studies, the topic is more commonly studied in other discourses and fields, for example in Television Studies.  Liesbeth van Zoonen describes in her book ‘Media, Culture and Citizenship’ how communication, especially television, contributes to connection on different levels, by their (de)binding powers. The media can create a world-community (as for example with the 9/11 disaster) or either create a strong national community (e.g. in soccer World Cups). Not only in news or sports, but count the number of TV programs and shows related to the ‘typical’ Dutch culture in the TV guide (with Ik Hou van Holland / ‘I Love Holland’ as most obvious example) and be surprised.


However, social media sites are the product of the Web 2.0. Instead of just consuming (one-way communication as in mass media like television), we produce as well and become prosumers.  So instead of just studying the ways the medium effects the users in terms of national identity, it is also necessary to look at it the other way around: how users contribute to the national identity by using SNS and how does national identity manifest itself online? National identity is defined by the German sociologist Max Haller as “conscious, intellectual-spiritual, judgmental and emotional-affective founded affirmation of the belonging to a political community”. His German collegagues Heyder and Schmidt highlight the emotional facet by describing the emotions “that each individual connects with the nation as a whole respectively with the particular aspects like national history, culture and economy”. National identity contains aspects of both individual and collective identity. It can can decrease or increase significance reliant on social, economic and political conditions.

What research has been done so far on this topic (globally)?

-Fragoso (2006) examined the role of national identity in social network sites use through an investigation into the ‘‘Brazilian invasion’’ of Orkut (a SNS owned and operated by Google Inc.) and the resulting culture clash between Brazilians and Americans on the site.

– danah boyd (2007) attends in G/localization the matter of national identity in global (social) networks “Just because people can connect globally does not mean they want to. People are more drawn to those who are like them, who share their same values and cultural norms. In this way, people don’t have to explain the foundations of their thoughts. They feel more closely aligned and more willing to share with people who are more like them. Similarities breed less conflict. Furthermore, most people don’t use digital communities to make new friends – most use it to connect to offline friends through technology“. She also talks about language. Culture is embedded in language and language expresses culture. Language barriers can obstruct the communication from different nationalities. Machine translation can help out, but has its restrictions. Also, norms and values play an important role. The article is not so much on creating national identity, but more how global communication is restricted.

In order to study national identity in social networking sites, I suggest to focus on the biggest culturally most diverse social network nowadays: Facebook. Once started as a university network, now grown to a world wide social network with an excessive global reach: more than 800 million users, of whom more than 75% comes from outside of the USA and over 70 languages available on the site. The global aspect of Facebook can be found in manhy of their applications, such as maps that show where your friends lived all around the world and how many of them lived in which country exactly. boyd argues that SNSs aren’t as global as they might claim they are.

The digital era has allowed us to cross space and time, engage with people in a far-off time zone as though they were just next door, do business with people around the world, and develop information systems that potentially network us all closer and closer every day. Yet, people don’t live in a global world – they are more concerned with the cultures in which they participate.” (boyd 2007)

However, many authors argue that one effect of ‘The Global Village’ as in SNSs as Facebook is a decreasing importance of nationality, because users see themselves as members of a global community. Wired, a magazine on technology, published in 1999 an article on internet usage principles. One of the ten 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

Most research is the other way around. How culture influences the behaviour (communication) on SNS, instead of how SNS influences the national identity, the alternative way to study SNS as I am proposing. What I am interesting is for example wheter Facebook contributes more to a Dutch nationality feeling (or even patroitism) than Hyves, because Facebook is international so a distinction (and thus a belonging to a group) can be made. Especially during international events e.g. an international soccer game, when people will write status updates on this on their wall. I remember a ‘Facebook hype’ when people could become fan of a group page of their own country. It was all about collecting the most likes and people became very fanatic sending the link to all their online friends.

Both the positive sides (national pride, patriotism) as the negative aspects (‘hardcore’ nationalism, Xenophobia) should be investigated. The research can be done by empirical analyses, surveys and interviews. A methodology topic can be a term coined by academic William Sumner: ethnocentrism, the propensity to believe that one’s ethnic or cultural group is centrally important, and that all other groups are measured in relation to one’s own.


boyd, danah, and Ellison, Nicole. (2007). Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship. JCMC, 13 (1). [Special Issue of JCMC on Social Network Sites, Eds.: danah boyd and Nicole Ellison.]

boyd, danah. (2006). G/localization: When Global Information and Local Interaction Collide. O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference.San Diego, CA March 6.

Fragoso, Suely. (2006). WTF a Crazy Brazilian Invasion. In Sudweeks, F. and Hrachovec, H., Proceedings of CATaC 2006. (pp. 255-274). Murdoch University – School of Information Technology.

boyd, danah, and Ellison, Nicole. (2007). Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship. JCMC, 13 (1). [Special Issue of JCMC on Social Network Sites, Eds.: danah boyd and Nicole Ellison.]

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