Social networks: from national to network identities

In one of the previous posts I mentioned that social networks, among many benefits, have a negative impact on our lives too. However, every cloud has a silver lining. It is a fact that the influence of Facebook, as the brightest and most popular social network, brings a lot of skepticism and doubt. Still, there are many more benefits in using it rather than simply rejecting.

I don’t want to list all of the ‘goodies’ offered by Facebook, starting from the opportunity to stay connected with friends all over the world, to revolutionary changes in business and political awakening. What I would like to highlight is something that is not mentioned so often, or is rather confined to academic discussions and research. Social networks help construct a new form of personal identity – network, politary, or arbitrary identity.

We have lived all life in the industrial phase and that’s why we consider the current social systems and ideologies as constants. But this is not so. Nationalism and patriotism are examples of concepts not adequate for the agrarian phase (where vassalage and unity in faith dominated) and especially for the archaic one. Nor will they be relevant for the post-industrial phase. Every epoch brings its own understanding of a person’s identity. In addition to self-identification as an individual, man is inclined to identify himself with certain communities. This desire to structure the world is embedded in the human nature. Whether somebody likes it or not, man consciously and subconsciously divides everyone into ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. This cannot be helped as this is a powerful instinct-based program. Properly speaking, identity is a part of human consciousness that is formed through the feeling of affiliation to different social groups.

We are now witnessing signs of the end of the Modern epoch that has lasted for about five hundred years. During this phase of historical development nations have been an important part of social classification and identification, in contrast to kinship, tribal, religious and ethnic forms of self-identification in the Pre-Modern epoch. Similarly and naturally, national identities – a common way of self-identification in the modern or industrial phase – will transform in the post-modern or post-industrial epoch we are gradually entering.

The signs of the next system of identity can be seen throughout the world. These are cosmopolitans or citizens of the world who think globally and are not bound by national ties, at least in the common understanding of organic and institutional identities. They choose themselves whom to be and in which country (nation-state) to live. Such people feel affiliation first of all with those who share their ideas and interests. They do not have a problem, like their predecessors of the earlier epoch, choosing a language to communicate. If my community lives in California, I will live and speak English, even though I am a Russian Ukrainian. Differentiation goes hand in hand with individualization, the process of distinguishing oneself from the traditional social groups followed by creation of new groups. And this is where social networks step in: they play a tremendous role to construct identity based on arbitrary interpersonal relationships that becomes more and more varied.

To make a conclusion, we are inclined to overemphasize our own system of identities by considering it as a unique and everlasting one. Nationality did not always exist, nor will it be important in future. Even today this word may mean nothing for someone, while bear completely different meanings for others. More important, however, is that in the present-day world social networks facilitate the construction and implantation of the new type of network identity not bound by a territory or language.

This does not mean that nationality will fade away completely. Rather, the new identity will co-exist with the national one, like national identities co-exists with religious ones. Every new system of identification is more complex than the preceding one. This is natural as every new paradigm leads to a higher degree of structure. There will be more and more people with complex identity systems. This process is normal and needs to be accepted as given.

In the 2010 movie “The Social Network” Sean Parker, the co-founder of Facebook, proclaimed: “We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the internet!”. We all live in a unique historical epoch, the time of transition from the modern industrial society to post-industrial information one. Being able to use the technological benefits the new era offers means being on the top of the wave. After all, technology is neither good or bad itself. It’s up to us whether we use it in the pursuit of power or a positive change in the world.

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