In just a few short weeks, Google+, a new social network from the company that gave us the world’s most popular and profitable search engine, has signed up over 10 million members. While it remains to be seen whether Google+ will prove an enduring success, it has already demonstrated that Facebook, with over 750 million members, is not infallibly destined to dominate the social-networking landscape.
Though Google+ and Facebook appear similar on the surface, they are built around different animating principles. Google’s mission is often described as organizing the world’s information. That sounds like a noble enterprise in itself, but of course Google seeks to organize the world’s information so that it can place relevant advertisements next to that information. Google’s fate is thus tied to the fate of the wider Web. The more information that is accessible via the Web, the better it is for the search engine that helps you find it, which is part of why Google has controversially sought to digitize all books ever published. Facebook, in contrast, aims to build a large and flourishing “walled garden” that exists apart from the wider Web.
Google+ is perhaps best understood as a “social backbone” — an open system that will eventually serve as the structure underlying a larger, more complex ecology that allows its users to join a large number of overlapping communities. In time, these new virtual communities may well become as important as the virtual community that is the nation-state.
In 1983, the Marxist polymath Benedict Anderson published Imagined Communities, a brilliant look at the origin and spread of the idea of the nation. While Marx had predicted that national consciousness would eventually fade away, Anderson, a student of Southeast Asia, understood that it was a far more durable phenomenon. Nations — communities of people united by common ideas, language, and/or culture — have been understood as the basic building blocks of world order for so long that we often forget how new they really are. Until the late 18th century, dynastic states were the norm (a state being defined by its territory and government, not by anything else its inhabitants hold in common — so the Habsburg Empire was a state but not a nation, while Hungary and Slovenia and Italy were nations but not states). The legitimacy of rulers stemmed from divine authority, and religious communities that transcended the boundaries of states were of the utmost importance.
The advent of what Anderson calls “print-capitalism” fatally undermined these interlinked certainties. Print-capitalism, in Anderson’s telling, was the product of two innovations. The first, the printing press, was a technological innovation. The second, the rise of Protestantism, was in a sense the software that gave new power to the hardware that was the printing press.
Before Martin Luther, the market for Latin literature was quickly saturated, because the number of people who could read and write the language fluently was small. But the masses who spoke various vernacular languages were potentially a vast market, and Protestantism emphasized the importance of reading Scripture in vernacular languages. With the aid of print entrepreneurs eager to sell books, languages that had been ill-defined took on firmer shape when they were reduced to writing. In-between languages spoken in borderlands were assimilated into larger linguistic communities, which had achieved the scale that print-capitalism needed to take root.
The new print-languages “created unified fields of exchange and communication below Latin and above the spoken vernaculars.” Differences of dialect were overcome through the printed word, and vast communities of fellow newspaper and novel readers became the germ of truly national communities. These communities were not built on face-to-face, intimate contact. Rather, they were built on the idea that strangers we’ve never met but who share our language are in some important sense like us.
“For whatever superhuman feats capitalism was capable of,” Anderson wrote, “it found in death and languages two tenacious adversaries.” Even though humanity’s general linguistic unification would have created the largest possible market for book publishers, it was not to be. And that is how nations found their edges.
In the decades since Imagined Communities was first published, capitalism has begun to triumph over linguistic divisions. It will be many decades before we can meaningfully speak of humanity’s linguistic unification, but it no longer seems beyond the realm of possibility. At the most basic level, the Web has given rise to a unified field of exchange and communication that transcends print-languages. Though instantaneous-translation software is still in its infancy, it is getting better all the time, and this has greatly facilitated the flow of knowledge from one linguistic community to another. Scandinavian rock bands and Indian software entrepreneurs do their best work in English, which has become the language not just of a narrow elite but of a large and growing swathe of the global middle class.
These tendencies towards linguistic unification have the potential to make our allegiances more expansive. We might, for example, feel a sense of solidarity not just towards our fellow Americans, but towards all people who share our broad cultural sensibilities. In the pre-national era, the European aristocracy conceived of itself in cosmopolitan terms, held together not by Google+ or Facebook but by a dense web of intermarriage and a common interest in subjugating restless populations. Only belatedly did royal families, from the Windsors to the Hohenzollerns to the Wittelsbachs, attempt to “nationalize” themselves, in a bid to enhance their legitimacy with newly nationalized publics. In similar fashion, today we often hear the argument, most recently from Chrystia Freeland of Reuters, that there is a new global elite of wealthy entrepreneurs and hedge-fund managers and other masters of the universe who no longer think in national terms. Christopher Lasch spoke of “the revolt of the elites,” and of affluent professionals who live like expatriates in their own countries.
It is increasingly clear that this post-national frame of mind is not the exclusive preserve of elites. Immigrants to affluent market democracies have traditionally embraced assimilation as the most effective means of upward mobility. Now, however, there are migrants at both ends of the economic spectrum who remain closely linked to their home countries. Successful immigrants often move back and forth between their native and adopted countries, carrying ideas and capital with them. Poor immigrants send home remittances, and often dream of returning to their country with a large nest egg. In Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, Christopher Caldwell provocatively argues that contemporary Muslim immigrants in Europe are not unlike early European settlers in the Americas: They have no intention of assimilating because they consider their own traditions and beliefs superior to those of the natives. Something similar is true of many of the American and European expatriates living in the booming cities of Asia, who have no intention of going native but will happily exploit new economic opportunities.
As Marc Dunkelman recently argued in an essay in National Affairs, social-media technologies allow us to be more selective about the relationships we maintain. The people with whom we share physical space — those who live in our subdivisions and apartment buildings, or who work in the same place as we do — remain an important source of friendships, but they no longer hold a monopoly on our attention or our affection. We can be choosier, and we can withdraw into safe zones with those who share our aspirations and sensibilities. This is not to say that we’re all retreating into ideological bubbles, for example. But we can more carefully select the people with whom we choose to disagree. In Dunkelman’s view, this shift in how we form communities has undermined our ability to bridge political divides. It is worth noting, however, that as of now, relationships on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ resemble real-world relationships in that we are far more likely to “friend” or “follow” someone living in the same city or region than someone living half a world away.
These technologies are still in their infancy, and it is not yet clear where they will lead us. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say that nation-states, and the big governments to which they are so closely tied, will give way to new virtual communities that will be built around shared values more than shared languages or shared territories. This will be as unsettling as the transition from a spiritually unified Christendom to a world of nation-states was. But it might be just as inevitable.
– Mr. Salam writes National Review Online’s domestic-policy blog, The Agenda. He is a policy adviser at the nonprofit economic-research organization Economics21.