Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Could Twitter be a tool for nation-building?

The other night, as I checked up the news on Twitter and added a tweet of my own (from which David Bullard has mercifully been shielded) something struck me. So many of the people I follow on Twitter had made comments about the Bafana Bafana/Brazil match. There was a real sense of shared experience, of a common interest — and a shared emotional investment in the result, as South Africans.

Twitter seems to lend itself very well to the expression of nationalist sentiments. This reminded me of the work of Benedict Anderson, who argued in Imagined Communities that the media effectively created the concept of the nation because they allowed members of a nation to imagine a shared identity with others. As Anderson argues, the nation must be imagined because it is impossible for members of even a small nation to know, meet or even hear of most of their fellow members “yet in the mind of each lives the image of their communion”. An American, for example “will never meet, or even know the names of more than a handful of his 240 000 000-odd fellow Americans. He has no idea what they are up to at any one time. But he has complete confidence in their steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity”.

Community in this sense must be actively constituted by mental projection, something that Twitter accomplishes very effectively. This relates not only to sporting events, which have historically amounted to war without the shooting (as George Orwell put it), but also events of profound significance. Look at the role Twitter has played in fomenting a sense of shared identity amongst Iranians who have disputed the recent election results — effectively pitting one version of the nation against another: because Twitter is so brilliantly simple, it is a superb medium for quick, concise and frequent news updates. And, of course, it has also permitted others to express solidarity with the Iranian cause, which has in turn led to greater awareness and — perhaps — greater international pressure.

It’s a truly brilliant tool for democracy.

Twitter has been widely criticised for the way in which it lends itself to banality. But banality is also the stuff of everyday life, and thus the life and soul of ordinary citizens. Whether you use it for networking, catching up on the news, blowing off steam, keeping in touch with friends or promoting yourself and your work, I have no doubt that Twitter will change the way the world, and nations, talk amongst themselves.

And it will happen whether or not the old farts approve of it.