Being British: How has the internet affected our national identity?
The web enables Britons to retain their cultural and emotional links with home wherever they areThere is no one page where web denizens can go to experience the definitive online British experience. I've tried to find one, but I get lost down the rabbit hole of the satirical TVGoHome.com, or obsessed with the icons on the BBC's weather forecast page. I wanted to make sure I wasn't overlooking something obvious, such as ilovebritain.com or wearethebritish.co.uk, and so I conducted a straw poll of my Twitter followers, looking specifically for websites that would give an alien from outer space the definitive experience of "Britishness". I got a list back that includes everything from nicecupofteaandasitdown.com, "the premier web site for tea drinkers who are keen on sitting down and biscuits", to Twicket.com, "a live internet video broadcast of a village cricket match", to manutd.com, the official website for the football team. Hardly conclusive.The problem is that the very notion of national identity is complex. Being British is a late addition to our panoply of identities; our personal sense of who we are as individuals evolves early through experience boy/girl, child/parent, et cetera but our national identity is the bit that's learned later and is often thrust upon us. As Raphael Samuel describes in his book Patriotism: The Making and Unmaking of British National Identity: "It is an occasional rather than a constant presence." In other words, the sense of being British isn't always there it's ignited in our consciousness only in particular circumstances. A recent wedding springs to mind. The World Cup. Threats to our borders and security.The web offers a platform for multiplicity rather than unity. Before it gave us all a global voice, we were united by the narrowcast media of television, newspapers and radio; these mass communication platforms transmitted a Britishness that was determined by gatekeepers the editors, commissioners and money people. Now, however, we all have access to what Hugh Mackay of the Open University describes as a stage where anyone can perform nuanced aspects of "the nation", and its core cultural attributes. Where this becomes particularly interesting is in the diaspora communities: the web now offers a place where people who have left a physical location can gather to experience a sense of national belonging. They can access the same cultural touchpoints as people in residence, from local news to comedy, and can engage in the same debates.Although McKay and other web idealists believe this allows for a more democratised definition of who "we" are, I'd say it simply offers a fertile ground for pedantry. We express what it means to each of us to be who we are, and if we don't agree with another person's interpretation, we can find people who do think like us and perform our version of Britishness with them instead.Yet there is some common ground across the online understanding of what Britishness is. Our empirical understanding of this has evolved through reverse logic: researchers have studied British identity in forums, social networks and other virtual gathering spots by looking at how we decide what we are not. And despite the very prominent multiculturalism in the UK, the unfortunate thread that runs through the results of research studies published as recently as 2008 is that Britishness is "white" seen as the most common marker of what is perceived to be British and what is not.But it isn't the end of the story. There are countless examples of sites that celebrate our obsession with the weather, our penchant for satire, our co-dependent relationship with the pub and other elements of national heritage. The web allows for the expression of the diversity of the UK and the nuanced representation of the people united under the union flag does still inform how we negotiate and define who we are online.Historian Peter Furtado argues that the 17th century inspired the evolution of a national identity because Britain had to negotiate who she was within the global scene; we are experiencing a similar self-awareness now, via the conversations we are having across the web. Now, however, the conversation is global, rather than within the physical boundaries of the UK.Citizenship is a political demarcation; the sense of identifying with one's nation is a profoundly personal thing. We're not becoming more or less British because of the web, just as Americans aren't becoming more or less American or Iranians aren't becoming more or less Iranian. Technology allows each of us the opportunity to publish our versions of what it means to be whatever we are.If you don't agree with it, you can build your own version. So there.British identity and societyInternetAleks Krotoskiguardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions More Feeds