2 November 2014

Facebook is not a "nation" and never will be

I am always amused by the perennial news item that tries to compare an online platform to a nation. Facebook has become a favourite thing for journalists and headline writers to compare to nations. Just last week we were treated to the Huffington Post declaration: "Facebook Could Soon Be The Biggest 'Nation' On Earth" (October 28, 2014) which notes that the number of Facebook users is nearly equal to the population of China.

Of course the Huffington Post did not invent this comparison. Similar stories have been running for years, including this piece in the (British) Independent newspaper from 2012, and this article in the Economist in 2010.

But no matter how attractive the comparison may be, we are left with these unavoidable truths: Facebook is not a "nation"; Facebook is not a "country"; Facebook is not a "state". And it never will be.

In many ways this is obvious. As the Economist article stated in 2010, "[Facebook] has no land to defend; no police to enforce law and order; it does not have subjects, bound by a clear cluster of rights, obligations and cultural signals. Compared with citizenship of a country, membership is easy to acquire and renounce."

And yet some continue to rally around the concept that online person-to-person communications media (like Facebook and most other social media platforms) help people to create common communities of interest that transcend the modern, geographically based, nation-state. This may be true in some senses, but only in a limited fashion.

Ultimately, people in a society want need and deserve some degree of reassurance about their rights and responsibilities. An obvious starting point is the security of one's life, liberty, and property, and that of one's family. A "virtual" community, no matter how noble and well-intentioned, is unable to supply assurances like this. At an individual level we will always want to know what response to expect when we shout, "Help, police!" or "Help, fire!"

While it may be possible for online platforms to help communities of like-minded individuals to connect and share points of view, this ignores the fact that most people belong to and identify with multiple communities. Yes, I am a "lawyer" and this affiliation defines a significant part of my life. But it does not define my entire existence. Other communities with which I am associated include: residents of London, political "liberals", education professionals, members of my immediate family, and citizens of the United States. Each of these communities means something different to me. I hold different responsibilities with respect to each, and I have different expectations of what each owes to me.

For as long as I have lived in England, I have expected my physical day-to-day security to be guarded by the Metropolitan Police and not the police force of my home town of Kettering, Ohio. The fact that I can now communicate with the Kettering police by connecting online is almost completely irrelevant to my daily security needs. If my neighbourhood is threatened by property development that could degrade its architectural heritage, the "community" that matters to me - and that has an opportunity to make a difference - is the community of my fellow residents. No amount of complaint to the Bar of the Illinois Supreme Court will provide any aid to this cause, even though I am a member in good standing of that other community.

There are additional reasons that Facebook will not become a "Nation".

First, Facebook (in my opinion) does not stand for a common set of shared community values. On the contrary, it is a platform that allows people who hold diametrically opposed and mutually incompatible community values to declare the "truth" of their own beliefs and their own value system. There is no guarantee that this will produce a single "community" at all. (For a light-hearted explanation of why I believe this, have a look at The Babel Fish Paradox.)

Second, Facebook and other online social media platforms are merely the most recent examples of transnational enterprises, or multinational enterprises (MNE's). An MNE is simply an enterprise that owns or controls goods or services in more than one state. These have existed for a very long time. Perhaps because of their multi-state status, they tend to be objects of mystery and suspicion.

Finally, Facebook and other online platforms continue to exist because they help to further the goals and desires of the various communities in which they operate. As I wrote in 2010, Facebook offers community organisers the opportunity to restrict access to defined groups based on geography. And even when the borders are not so obvious (because an end user is unable to access a group) advertisers love working with online platforms (like Facebook), in part, because of the ability to segment and differentiate messages based on end-user geolocation.

While Facebook and other platforms can alter the way that we communicate with one another, the various communities in which we live and with which we identify (our nation; our state; our church; our neighbourhood; our profession) also influence the way that Facebook and other platforms present and shape their service offerings.

To be effective businesses, Facebook and other platforms have a strong incentive to identify and (quietly) to assist in reinforcing sovereign borders. Anything less serves to devalue the experience that they offer to end-users. All 1.3 Billion of us.

Facebook will never become a nation. Any attempt to do so would devalue its ability to continue as a ubiquitous global enterprise. On the contrary, I predict that Facebook will continue to develop in a fashion that allows geographically based communities to find, and to enforce, their borders.