Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Mapping Communities, Mapping the Internet

Several times in his book, Benedict Anderson mentions the obvious but significant fact that place and environment greatly influence the formation of many imagined communities.

In the chapter “Creole Pioneers,” for instance, he writes that of a community born from “the shared fatality of trans-Atlantic birth” (57). He elaborates on this community of exclusion: “Even though in terms of language, religion, ancestry, or manners [the creole] was largely indistinguishable from the Spain-born Spaniard… Born in the Americas, he could not be a true Spaniard” (58). In “Cultural Roots,” furthermore, the novel El Periquillo Sarniento evokes an imagined community by “fus[ing] the world inside the novel with the world outside… The horizon is clearly bounded: it is that of colonial Mexico” (30). The author of Semarang Hitam also uses “a familiar landscape” (32) to connect print-capitalism with Indonesian nationalism. Again and again we see Anderson emphasize “a territorially specific imagined reality” (122, italics mine).

And indeed, we largely consider nations to be geographically bounded places – or even places, period. This raises the question of imagined communities born on the internet: they have no place, because one can access them from any place. Yet many of the internet’s most substantive and enduring phenomena concern communities engaged in world-building, mimicking the physical and literal sense of place so central to older nations. For example, consider Second Life, the Sims Online, and various MMORPGs, as well as inappropriately place-based online lingo like website, home page, chat room, cyberspace, etc.

My question is this: Is such world-building a positive and necessary act on the part of a given online community, or does it instead mark a transition period as internet users learn to let go of the antiquated concept that place is necessary for community (and even nationalism)? Anderson’s “newspaper reader…is continually reassured that the imagined world is visibly rooted in everyday life” (35-36); but is it maybe out of place for internet communities to be “rooted” as well?

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