Did the internet matter for internationalism?

I’ve been on the internet for over 20 years. When I initially got on the net I remember interacting with people who lived in England, and it was so cool! At one point I recall getting into a talk session with someone who lived in Ecuador. If you lived through the era of Wired circa 1995 to 1999 you remember all the talk about how the internet was going to make location irrelevant, and we were going to congeal into a world cross-linked by cyber-connections. In the mid-2000s the Second Life boomlet brought back some of those feelings, but that faded.

Unlike many Americans I have a lot of family abroad. One of my Facebook friends is my cousin who happens to be a religious teacher and brought up in Tablighi Jamaat by an uncle who has long been a partisan of that movement. I know this cousin a bit (I met him when I visited Bangladesh in 1990 and 2004), and he’s a nice enough fellow. He even likes some of my personal events (e.g., the births of my children). We’ve had chat sessions here and there. Since my “religion” is put as “atheist” on my profile he also knows that about me (he double-checked with me when he became my Facebook friend).

I bring all this up because I hardly ever interact with the cousins who are on Facebook who live abroad. Rather, my Facebook feed is mostly devoted to those who I grew up with in the states, and in particular those who I work with, or went to school with recently. Basically what you’d expect. Facebook has over 1 billion users, but we’re all in our own cultural silos, chattering amongst ourselves. This isn’t totally surprising, and today it seems banal. Yes, there are millions of people from India on Facebook, but they’re not part of my social graph, and won’t be…unless they immigrate to the United States.

When the internet was young we didn’t anticipate many things about its later development. One was that rather than transforming our social networks, it would simply facilitate them. Yes, e-mail and Facebook have changed the way we interact and socialize. But they’ve probably just amplified and smoothed preexisting trends, rather than change the underlying dynamic.

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