We commonly refer to Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn as social networks. But couldn’t these communities also be seen as virtual countries? This article attempts to explore the latent power behind these organizations and how they might effect, maybe even challenge, the traditional nation-state.
Community or Country?
What’s the difference between a gathering of people and a country? Boil it down and there isn’t much. Maybe scale? Maybe not. Knights of Columbus claims 1.8 million members. The country of Luxembourg….511,846.
What about Geography? Countries typically own and occupy land…right? Yep…but what about the Vatican? Isn’t that a religous organization? Why do the Catholics have their own Sovereignty? Putting that aside…there’s plenty of organizations that own massive tracts of land. What would prevent Facebook from buying up thousands of acres and calling it ‘Facebookville’?
How about taxes? Surely countries differentiate themselves on this level. But, alas, they don’t. As a member of LinkedIn you can join free, but more privileged services require you to pay. This is true of the nation state as well. Many citizens live free of taxes due to poverty levels, while others pay more than their share and receive better treatment in the eyes of the law.
How about the ability to issue currency? Nope. Many social sites now offer their own private virtual currencies. If you’ve followed some of my tweets on @goldzee…it’s becoming clear that these currencies, unlike the early days with Flooz and others, may actually have legs to stand on ( the eWallet will enable it ). Furthermore, through virtual currency exchange sites, these virtual currencies may become convertible and trade-able.
Probably the one area where nation states can and do differ from online communities is the ability to enact rules that, if broken by a citizen, and found guilty of breaking them, the citizen’s rights can be curtailed by force. Nation states can do this….I have yet to see an online community do that. Yes, Google could take away your Google + account, but you’re not in a prison cell after that action.
Social Networks as bold experiments in redesigning the nation state?
The similarities between countries and social networks are sufficiently complimentary to ask the question: are we experimenting with new ways to organize and manage a population of people? In other words…is this becoming more than just sharing your experiences from last friday night and making new friends? Is Facebook a challenge to the world order?
There is evidence for this. Take a look at the recent Arab Spring. I wouldn’t dare propose that Facebook, Twitter, or Google caused this event. Such a view is absurd, but it can’t be doubted, as was reported by many media outlets, that the community of people in the Middle East who helped launched this revolution found *means*, even refuge in these social services. An abstract concept expressed in a virtual world…exploded into the real. That can’t be taken lightly if you’re a national government.
More evidence goes to population sizes. Facebook claims 750 million members as of writing this article. That puts them just behind China and India. Freak you out? It should. Let’s say the average Facebooker has a salary of $10,000.00 a year. That would make Facebook’s GDP; $7.5 Trillion. In third place behind the U.S. and EU. The ability to influence, communicate and coordinate 750 million wealthy people ( I realize many be inactive users ) is nothing to be ignored. If influence is power than those who wield over the Facebook world are emerging titans. The population numbers point to how much people enjoy just being a part of Facebook. There’s no tangible product here. It’s not like billions and billions sold at McDonald’s. People aren’t coming to Facebook for consumption or service. They want to connect, communicate, and be part of something. Something.
Cultural norms are something that identify a country. But increasingly the world is becoming one culture. The U.S. probably jump started the global culture thing, but a quick look at Facebook and Twitter shows how music, art, jokes, news, sayings, etc all flood through through their networked members at hyper speeds. Indeed these social networks are owning the global culture. Something that’s popular and gets tweeted gets re-tweeted exponentially and people talk about later. “Did you see that video clip on YouTube…HA!”. These things become our identity, our representation. More and more the world’s cultural borders are melting and we see more in common with some fellow 3000 miles away in Kazahkistan than we do with our neighbor next door. This is an unmistakeable challenge to physical countries today.
Ultimately though, a grouping of people need a way to make decisions; voting in our physical countries. We use representatives ( proxies ) today to handle our decision making. But its been well known for decades that technology could circumvent the need to have politicians. So is there a way to decide and bind those decisions in a meaningful way? In some ways..yes. You can ‘Like’ something and Facebook has opened up some of its website governance to its users. But these are far cry from tough decisions like whether to go to war, send someone to prison, or enact a new law cutting healthcare benefits. Perhaps governing a virtual world is less demanding than governing a real one. But if we think these virtual communities could provide an experimental new society…then they’ll need to prove they have a way to manage these tough nuggets.
A real virtual country
So is there experimentation going on that resembles nation crafting? Yes…..but probably only as a side effect to pacifying member wishes. A real virtual country has yet to come.
But, What would a true virtual nation look like? Let’s take a ludicrous stab at this in the hopes of provoking debate:
1. A reason for being – A virtual country would need to have a reason to exist. People would have to feel truly compelled to abandon their physical countries for an alternate new virtual one. An example of such a reason might be the current fiscal issues facing many sovereign countries today. Such an issue, in its severest form, might be enough for people to say “We can make something better.”
2. Open and Beneficial for All – A true virtual country would be open. It wouldn’t be a place that was owned for the benefit of a few people. It would exist for the entire community. Facebook exists for it’s shareholders…like it or not. It’s motive is profit for them, not the people on the social network. A virtual country would change this by making each contributor a shareholder/owner of the network too. They would participate in any costs and share any profit.
4. Economy – Like any successful country the virtual one would require a market economy whereby owners find means to pursue their interests and livelihood.
5. Justice and Rule of Law – A way to mitigate disputes and resolve issues as well as a body of laws that provide guidelines for behavior are equally important. We often take these for granted, but let’s face it….no one wants to live in a country where everything boils down to how many armed men you command. Anarchy is the abscence of organization.
6. Legitimacy – Any social network hoping to claim itself as a country would need to seek legitimacy in the eyes of organizations like the IMF, United Nations, and others. This is a massive challenge because each physical country would see some threat in the inclusion of virtual countries. Would someone be a citizen of Zimbabwe, Virtual Nation X, or both? Could a virtual country claim each member’s home as sovereign territory? Would virtual citizens refuse to pay taxes to the physical country if they were doing so to the physical one?
Ultimately, today, the social networks are businesses; not countries. They are seeking profit and they do this by satisfying their members desires. The more views, the more advertising dollars, and the wealthier they become. While each social network has some of the makings of a nation state….they aren’t directed on that purpose. The virtual world is not tied to Facebook, Twitter, or Google. It’s the other way around. It’s probably more likely that these networks will remain just a new abstract organization of people, but it’s fun to think of what could evolve and that was the purpose of the article.
Woaoh! Incredible article. I am not sure if any of these networks or a new one may in the future become a virtual country but the whole idea is brilliant. Of course as you correctly mention there are plenty of problems but who could imagine a decade ago facebook and twitter? 🙂
Thanks for the nice comment. It is fun to consider…twitter, facebook, google plus and others point a way, maybe unintentionally, to how the web can abstract anything…..even countries and economies.
It’s an really interesting and thought-provoking idea, thanks.
As for the features of a country (or a state) mentioned in the part “A real virtual country” I propose that “1. A reason for being”, “5. Justice and Rule of Law” and “6. Legitimacy” are ultimately strongly connected. The idea of a state (or country, in your terms) as such, seems to be a bargain of power. The citizen concedes certain powers (such as enacting justice) to the state. The citizen’s goal is to live and act under predictable circumstances, so that no-one unexpectedly and unduly enacts justice on her. The state takes its legitimacy from guaranteeing that a predictable environment exists and is maintained.
Virtual countries in my opinion thus are not to replace physical ones. Rather they’d provide a predictable set of rules in an otherwise unpredictable (online) environment. Consequently I suggest that one could be citizen of both, a physical country and one (or more, see below) online country.
Furthermore, since digital content can be multiplied endlessly, one could be member of various online countries.
How do you feel now? Is it still relevant to have virtual countries?
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