Digital Citizenship and Social Network Feudalism

In the real world, we abhor censorship, take many civil rights for granted. But as digital citizens, we happily click ourselves back into the 17th century.

Facebookistan has the 3rd largest population on the globe, just behind China and India. Google+, the new kid on the block, already surpassed Switzerland (big deal), Senegal, and even Australia. Which puts its current rank somewhere between Canada (population of 34.5 million, rank 35) and China (Republic of Taiwan that is, 23.2 millions, rank 50).

Mark Zuckerberg in the 17th century.

Now, those numbers do not make Facebook into a sovereign state, at least not in the traditional sense. Sovereign states are defined by territory. But the Googleplex is not like the Vatican a sovereign enclave in a larger territory. It’s still just a piece of real estate located in the US. And “Business is War” doesn’t mean Google war droids attacking the design soldiers of Jobs.

No land, no armies. The differences between Facebook (more than 10 times the population) and France (real nukes, real food) or Google (credit rating of AA+, just like the US) and Greece (CC, just like me) are obvious.

But so are the similarities. Sovereign nations are defined by their people, otherwise the Antarctica would be a superpower. And it’s we, the digital people, forming those digital Leviathans of the 21st century, which provide us with our digital IDs and currencies. They handle our communications, they might even tax us or control, what’s to be published or not (on their our Kindles and iPads).

350 years ago, Thomas Hobbes’ concluded, that an absolute monarchy be the best way to govern any sovereign. This would be a fringe opinion nowadays, at least in the western part of the real world. Our ancestors fought pretty hard to get us, where we are now: nobody should stay above the law, censorship is bad, sovereignty belongs to the people.

But a look at the digital domain might make Hobbes a happy man. The digital sovereign is not the people, but a corporation.

  • Post your artwork on Facebook, which might offense some bible belters? You’ll get evicted (as it happened to my friend Thomas). Eventually you might be allowed to return (as it happened to my friend Thomas). But no legal recourse here. It’s a little bit like GDR light.
  • Use a pseudonym on Google+? Say good-bye to your Google account.

In a heavily distributed digital universe, this wouldn’t be a big deal at all. Don’t like this bar? There are plenty next door. But Facebook isn’t your neighborhood Hooters, and Larry Page definitely not the soup nazi. There are not even a handful of Digital Sovereigns aspiring to become the operating systems of our digital lives.

The preamble to the United States Constitution starts like this: “We the People of the United States, … secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Our digital selves do not enjoy a constitution or according rights. We the users, have to accept some Terms of Service. And as most of you never really read what you OKed with a single mouse click, we hand now over to Richard Dreyfuss declaiming some parts of the Apple iTunes EULA.

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