In Box

A Melting Pot It’s Not

How the Internet is giving nationalism a boost.

What do Jennifer Aniston, Nikola Tesla, and soy milk all have in common? All three were subjects of protracted editing wars on Wikipedia, fueled by the competing claims of people in several nations (Greeks, Brits, and Americans tussled over Aniston; Serbs, Austrians, and Croatians battled for Tesla the inventor; and Koreans and Chinese fought over soy milk). Such seemingly trivial debates over national celebrities and products usually have a conclusive ending, unlike the heated, intractable online disputes over geographic areas -- be it the Sea of Japan or Macedonia (Wikipedia administrators had to develop a special policy to deal with that one).

In 1995, Nicholas Negroponte famously proclaimed in Being Digital, "[Thanks to the Internet] there will be no more room for nationalism than there is for smallpox." But today, the Web is far from the cosmopolitan nirvana that an early generation of Internet theorists envisioned.

Indeed, the explosion of user-generated content online seems to be having an effect similar to the printing revolution. When the budding European entrepreneurs of the 16th and 17th centuries began to print books and pamphlets written in the vernacular rather than Latin, they inadvertently forged national print languages -- and cultures.

Blogs and social networks have proved to be splendid platforms for mythmaking, spitting out visceral imagery and edgy slogans that quickly embed themselves in the national consciousness. Take the arguments between Pakistani and Indian bloggers over Kashmir or the Korean accusations over Japan’s history of imperialism. (Once, some Japanese hackers got so fed up with Korean Web sites that they installed special explanatory pop-ups to correct what they saw as historical inaccuracies.)

Of course, e-nationalism isn’t always a bad thing. Consider the plight of Assyrians -- a predominantly Christian group whose ancient homeland is now divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Forging a common Assyrian identity in the pre-Internet age was nearly impossible, as Assyrians are scattered around the globe and many of their new homelands don't provide the right conditions for preserving their culture.

Today, regardless of where they are based, Assyrians passionately follow the ups and downs of Assyriska Föreningen, a football club from Sweden that is the closest Assyrians have ever gotten to a national football team. They get regular news updates from sites including Assyrian Voice, their closest equivalent to a national newspaper. The rich tradition of Assyrian music is well represented on YouTube. Assyrian politicians running in local Swedish elections enjoy support of Assyrians in California. As Assyrians and other ethnicities are poised to discover, rebuilding their nation in cyberspace might not be impossible after all.

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