// 2021-05-14 // by Neon
As humans, we tend to organise ourselves into groups and communities based on those we associate ourselves with. Nations, if you will.
There have been a multitude of attempts to explore the term, but most sources hold a roughly similar broad definition. Wikipedia defines a nation as follows:
A nation is a community of people formed on the basis of a common language, history, ethnicity, or a common culture, and, in many cases, a shared territory.
Varying sources in different fields of academia may have marginal differences in their focus or exact verbiage defining what makes up a nation, but the above definition should be satisfactory for our purposes. And as this post will come to argue, the nature of a nation can be quite nebulous indeed.
The digital revolution and its consequences have been a kind of new enlightenment for human society. In this post, I'd like to explore concepts of a national and cultural identity that transcends geography altogether.
Now that we have explored what a nation is, we can use that definition and apply the concept of a nation to a subset of people who are not generally considered as having a national identity under a more traditional analysis: digital citizens (or, more colloquially, the Extremely Online).
I know, I know. "The Internet as a nation"? Ridiculous, right? Maybe not. Applying the model of a nation is both more accurate and ultimately more relevant than it may otherwise sound.
So let's jump right into it and answer the question of how the Internet and those who inhabit it constitute as a nation and why it even matters.
In abstract terms, the Internet is a digital landscape. Internet users may be divided geographically, but online we all stand together as neighbours amidst same interconnected cyberspace. The platforms we use online are shared spaces that not only expose us to new points of view, but also force us to interact with others who cohabitate the platforms we use.
It's not unlike the traditional social spaces we share with our physical neighbours in meatspace: we can't avoid having the people who surround us on a daily basis rub off on us and how we engage with the world.
We live in a world where social functions are increasingly performed through digital spaces. For example:
Many critics of such online activities see these kinds of interactions as substandard replacements of what they might call "the real thing". I would argue that such a position is ultimately a reductive analysis of the situation that ignores the sociological relevance of online interactions to the formation of new means of cultural expression.
While one can debate night and day what kinds of social interactions are "better", there is no denying that these kinds of interactions are real and meaningful to those who engage in and value them. Such online interactions play a pivotal role in modern society, even among those who aren't terminally online— online interactions influence our politics, our media, our work lives, and often even how we build and conduct our interpersonal relationships on a day to day basis.
That being said, for the Extremely Online, the impact of online interactions runs even deeper. Social connections facilitated by the digital world allow digital citizens to cultivate a mutual understanding between those who cohabitate the digital landscape, and even pave the way for a shared cultural identity.
If you are particularly online, you probably are familiar with terms like "channer", "redditor", or "tumblrite". These terms describe people who frequent or are active on certain platforms or internet spaces but, more importantly, they are terms that are used to identify one's mannerisms when interacting online.
The digital spaces we build and frequent online have social norms and customs that vary from platform to platform, many of which are not immediately apparent to those who aren't regulars to these venues. And, over time, these mannerisms become a socially identifiable marker to others about where and how we interact online.
Over time, our customs have evolved in a way that has pulled all of us in the Internet community closer to one another. We all know where the "places to be" online are and we're all used to putting up with each others' nonsense and drama.
As online denizens, we are connected by our shared understanding of our rich Internet culture and values. Our culture has complexified to the point that we even have our own distinct Internet English: a dialect that contains many terms and mannerisms that are often unintelligible to the mainstream Anglosphere.
Babe, i'm breaking up with you. it's not you, you were poggers. it's me, i'm omegalul. im sorry if this is pepehands but it has to be done, i've just been feeling pepega and our relationship has been weirdchamp for months, it's time to end it, no kappa.
Chances are, if you have enough Internet brain worms, you've been exposed to someone who has said something similar to the above sentence.
The Internet and its legion of shitposters have developed all kinds of colloquialisms and expressions that connect our communities. We have an extensive repertoire of memes and references that we use to discuss events and relate to each other. In more extreme cases, such discourse can leave Internet English wholly unintelligible to speakers of meatspace English dialects.
Even more fascinating than just the extensive memetic vocabulary of our language, we also have certain subtle differences in our language that are pragmatically distinct from meatspace written English.
For example, let's talk about capitalisation. In meatspace English, one capitalises the first word of a sentence and proper nouns. Simple. But in Internet English it isn't so clear cut. In Internet English, capitalisation is used to communicate what I will dub the "irony quotient" of any given utterance.
Within Internet English, the choice to capitalise or lowercase any given letter in a sentence is often deliberate and used to convey the level of formality or seriousness of a message. If one wants to appear more casual or familiar with another, one might intentionally lowercase the start of one's sentence and proper nouns within it. Conversely, to appear more serious and formal, one might intentionally switch to traditional English capitalisation rules. Also, mixed case LiKE tHIs MeANs A SeNTeNCE Is IRoNIc Or MOcKInG.
Linguists could probably study the quirks unique to Internet English for years and give a much more accurate quantitative analysis than anything I can bring to the table. But, realistically, if you have any sizable amount of time online then the idea that some of the things we say online can be pretty weird in consistent ways shouldn't be news to you.
The point I'd like to make abundantly clear is that we are a people with a shared dialect that connects us as a distinct and identifiable culture, despite the fact that we do not share a geographic or ethnic heritage. How cool is that?
Over the course of this post, we have explored how the shared virtual spaces of the Internet have resulted in a deeply interconnected community that has manifested a unique cultural identity despite being made up of a highly decentralised group of people with no geographical or ethnic relationship to one another.
So where does this bring us? Why does it even matter?
Through the participation of any culture, we as humans come to internalise the norms and values of that culture through the process of socialisation.
If we understand that the Internet has its own unique culture as a nation, then we must consider the Internet's ability to affect our personal worldviews and values through the cultural lens it endows upon us.
Let's take a second to step back and think about this. What kinds of ideas do online interactions implicitly force us to engage with, and how can that shape the way we as digital citizens think?
I do not have a conclusive answer to the above question, but I would suggest at least several cultural norms and values that are widely proliferated throughout our culture. As someone who is deeply involved in Internet culture, I can speculate on at least a couple ideas that Internet exposure has required me to grapple with. Not everyone who participates in online culture likes or agrees with these concepts, but in my experience the below ideas are inescapable when participating in online culture.
These kinds of ideas shape our interactions on the Internet but, more importantly, we bring our online experiences back with us to meatspace and shape how we view the world around ourselves based on our online interactions. By being a part of Internet culture, we internalise certain ideas that we might never have been exposed to otherwise.
Internet culture empowers us with a unique worldview built upon distinct experiences that less terminally online people often may not share in common. The value proposition of our unorthodox cultural identity as digital citizens is that we can take the ideas that make Internet culture truly special and bring those concepts to the table in order to implement real-world policy that makes the world better for everyone.
The unfortunate reality is that even though the Internet community is a kind of unconventional decentralised nation, we have neither direct representation in how our digital nation is governed, nor does our nation even have any political legitimacy to enact meatspace policy as a sovereign state would. We are stuck trying to make our digital realm (and, by extension, meatspace) a better place via the limited legislative machinery of our local governments (who more often than not do not give a shit about the Internet as a nation).
However, that does not mean that we as individuals are powerless. Given the cultural norms and ideas that digital citizens are so frequently exposed within our Internet community, we are uniquely equipped with the knowledge and rhetorical tools to take up certain social and political causes.
Examples of such causes include (but are not limited to):
The awesome thing about Internet is that since we're not a geographically independent nation, our issues tend to affect everyone— even people who don't consider themselves to be a part of Internet culture. And that's good news, because it's way easier to make allies in meatspace for digital rights causes when you can show people just how much certain issues have the potential to affect them personally.
The truth that so many people don't see is that the Internet is so much more than just a way of delivering and consuming content. We are a community connected through digital shared spaces that have brought us together and allowed us to build a distinct cultural identity, language, and values.
The Internet is unique as a nation with no borders, no geographical location, and no singular government. More importantly, we are a nation that needs to recognise the value of our cultural identity and stand together as neighbours in cyberspace. We don't have anyone who will protect us from technologically illiterate governments who don't understand our culture or from power-hungry corporations out to turn the Internet into a glorified digital shopping mall. We live in turbulent times where the idea of the free and open Internet is constantly under assault by people who don't understand or don't care about what makes the Internet so special. We, the users of the Internet, are the only people who will ever stand up to defend our precious series of tubes.
My point in making this post is to say that if you're a digital citizen like me (you know who you are), understand that you have a duty to represent the interests of our cherished digital metropolis whenever you can. You have a duty to this nation. Your nation. If this place is your community, like it is for me, then you need to stand up and treat it that way. Learn about causes and issues that affect the Internet community, represent those causes, and teach others why they should care as well. To reiterate, if you don't do it then no one else will.
Despite its unusual status in global society, we should wear our weird international cultural identity as digital citizens with pride. The Internet is a really awesome place, and we should be proud to share that with each other.
By writing a manifesto on the nature of the Internet as a nation, I cannot help but brush up against ideas of nationalism that I would encourage to be dismissed and condemned out of hand. Let's take a step back for a moment and talk about this. I do not think I would be adequately performing my social responsibility in writing this post if I did not include a note about nationalism.
Nationalism is the idea that a national identity is the bond from which state sovereignty and political power should be derived from. Nationalists often hold that national identity is the only rightful source of political power, and that line of thinking often leads to the deeply bigoted belief that those excluded by the sovereign national identity are inherently less valuable as human beings.
Historically, the nationalist line of thinking has resulted in the destruction of diverse cultural identities and a rejection of egalitarian ideals. Horrible atrocities have been and are committed in the name of nationalism.
I am not a nationalist, and I want absolutely nothing to do with nationalist politics. You shouldn't either. However, I believe that the idea of the Internet as a nation coming together to exercise our shared political influence is a concept that is useful toward the goal of making the world a more equitable, diverse, and cooperative place. I also believe that conducting an analysis of Internet culture using the framework of a nation to better understand how the Internet community operates is an effective way to get people to conceptualise the Internet as a legitimate cultural space.
I want to make it abundantly clear that the goal of this post is not to engender some kind of edgy nationalist identity that tries to pretend digital citizens are better than everyone else or something stupid like that. Rather, I hope to give people a sense of patriotism for their online communities and inspire people to use what they've learned from Internet culture to make the world a better place for everyone, not just for other digital citizens. Please refer to this handy comic as a resource for this important distinction.
At the end of the day, I think it's important that we recognise that the ideological model of cyberspace being a distinct group of people with a cultural identity separate from meatspace is not completely accurate to reality. The line of cultural identity is blurred by the fact that not all Internet users are accurately represented by the concept of the proverbial "digital citizen". The online culture in various digital spaces can be radically different from platform to platform. Furthermore, this model cannot hope to account for some of the truly shitty and destructive things that happen on the Internet, such as the proliferation of propaganda and manipulation of public opinion by state and corporate actors that operate many of the platforms we use online.
The idea of "the Internet as a nation" is a useful thought experiment to better understand the value that the Internet represents for our society, and how we can use that value to build a better future. However, we must undrestand and accept the limitations of what such a simplistic model is capable of doing for us. Ultimately we are all citizens of the Internet at this point. As time goes on, interactions between the digital world and meatspace are becoming more and more seamlessly integrated.
We have to come together as citizens of the world, not just some vague and reductive "Internet nation", and face the challenges ahead of us. More and more people will continue to have their daily lives affected by the Internet, whether they like it or not, and our offline communities will continue to increasingly see the effects of Internet-related political issues. My goal is to point out that it is our duty to use what we learn from this weird place growing to envelop the lives of everyone on this planet and use that knowledge to make society better.
I'd like to take a few moments to discuss the intent behind the symbolism in the flag at the top of this post.
The flag for this post was made by me in Inkscape and it was inspired by this guy. The asset used for the globe with meridians is unicode character U+1F310 from Twitter's Twemoji, which is available under a free license.
The globe with meridians is a well-known symbol that commonly is used to represent the world wide web. It is in white to represent peace and unity between all people across international borders.
The blue is specifically Berkeley Blue. The blue half represents the Internet's history as a university network developed at UC Berkeley as a tool to distribute research data and help educators make communication faster and more accessible to the world at large. The black half of the flag comes from the net neutrality movement, which regularly uses the colour black in its symbolism to represent corporate censorship and control. The white line that divides these two halves is representative of the divide between the Internet as a tool to education people or make the world a better place (blue) versus the constant corporate overreach into our lives that the modern internet often enables (black).
As a double entendre, the flag's layout it based on the flag for Anarcho-Transhumanism, a political ideology that strives to enhance human lives and expand individual liberties to new lengths through the power of technology. Quite apt for a flag of the Internet, I'd say.
This flag's aspect ratio is the golden ratio, a unique proportion that makes the flag easy to scale for print purposes.