What does Benedict Anderson mean by the concept of “imagined communities” anyway? Well, if we go straight to the horse’s mouth, here’s the skinny on the meaning of that admittedly rather lofty proposition:
"It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (Anderson, 1991).
Somewhat importantly before diving into an analysis of Anderson’s landmark work is to grasp the understanding that what he was talking about at the time was more along the lines of creating a conceptual nation—a virtual country, if you will—as projections of Anderson reminds us, nations are imaginatively projected before they are realized. Once a country manages to formulate from the imagination into the concrete, the inevitable process of nationalism begins. That has been the nature of organic nation-building for millennia and Anderson certainly foresaw no great change coming in that process. The world has changed a great deal since the publication of Imagined Communities, however, and Anderson’s theoretical construction can be applied now in ways not…ahem…imagined at the time of the writing.
In fact, one might even suggest that the world was basically just biding time before Anderson’s theoretical construction found its greatest realization. That time is now and the timeless experience of fanatical nationalism has at last discovered its optimum output for pressing its ideological stance beyond more borders and into the truly universal component of the global village as was also imagined around the same.
The dawn of the Epoch of Social Media has witnesses Anderson’s propositions relating to Imagined Communities to the point of revolution. This insurrection against the corporate and governmental control of information through mainstream media has fostered dissemination of information previously unavailable to the average person in a way adaptable, elastic and collaborative as to defy any the most provocative of 20th century predictions of what life would be like in the early 2000’s. The dream of almost completely unfettered dispersal of intelligence free from the ideological intrusion of authorities in the employ of governments or corporations has become a reality more frightening powerful than even the most steadfast non-imagined nations of the past could have conceived possible at this point in history. When it comes to enlightening, misrepresenting and otherwise determining public policy by manipulating majority opinions via the flow of information, old-school nationalism looks like a walk in the park.
As the definitive paradigm (so far) of Benedict Anderson’s titular concept outlined throughout the text of Imagined Communities, the virtual nation-building daily established, torn down and rebuilt with the various individual entities that collective make up social media have not just taken the author’s ideas in a new direction, they have created a genuinely revolutionary moment in time which anybody and everybody can instantly be established as the author of the community’s narrative.
The philosophies of media and cultural studies founded by such more famous peers of Benedict Arnold as Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin and Louis Althusser have at last been realized in the full three-dimensional image of their two-dimensional theoretical constructs. The imagined community populated by people around the world who, recalling the author’s definition, “will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them” have been endowed with the ability to utilize the most effective resource available for communion of a shared idea, belief or ideology. Previous to the rise of the virtual imagined community realized through the existence of social media, the power to exploit the mechanics of mass media as a tool for behavioral modification was hindered to too great an extent to wield globally for the purposes behind the politics of identification. Such hindrance naturally curtained the construction of imagined communities as a procedure for propagating any genuinely lasting sense of nationalism. Since a foundation of cultural studies is that as powerful an instrument as mass media is, it is simply not powerful enough to legislate specific changes to the body politic and so must be viewed only as one of many instruments used for the long-term goal of creating communal principles capable of authorizing legislated change. The addition of the social to the catalogue of mass media has exponentially increased that power and moved mass media ever closer to gaining the power not only to legislate change, but create communities whose collective power is too great to ignore.