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7.30.2010 The future is another country

By The Economist print edition

A COUPLE of months or so after becoming Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron wanted a few tips from somebody who could tell him how it felt to be responsible for, and accountable to, many millions of people: people who expected things from him, even though in most cases he would never shake their hands.

He turned not to a fellow head of government but to…Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and boss of Facebook, the phenomenally successful social network. (It announced on July 21st that it had 500m users, up from 150m at the start of 2009.) In a well-publicised online video chat this month, the two men swapped ideas about ways for networks to help governments. Was this just a political leader seeking a spot of help from the private sector—or was it more like diplomacy, a comparison of notes between the masters of two great nations?

In some ways, it might seem absurd to call Facebook a state and Mr Zuckerberg its governor. It has no land to defend; no police to enforce law and order; it does not have subjects, bound by a clear cluster of rights, obligations and cultural signals. Compared with citizenship of a country, membership is easy to acquire and renounce. Nor do Facebook’s boss and his executives depend directly on the assent of an “electorate” that can unseat them. Technically, the only people they report to are the shareholders.

But many web-watchers do detect country-like features in Facebook. “[It] is a device that allows people to get together and control their own destiny, much like a nation-state,” says David Post, a law professor at Temple University. If that sounds like a flattering description of Facebook’s “groups” (often rallying people with whimsical fads and aversions), then it is worth recalling a classic definition of the modern nation-state. As Benedict Anderson, a political scientist, put it, such polities are “imagined communities” in which each person feels a bond with millions of anonymous fellow-citizens. In centuries past, people looked up to kings or bishops; but in an age of mass literacy and printing in vernacular languages, so Mr Anderson argued, horizontal ties matter more.

So if newspapers and tatty paperbacks can create new social and political units, for which people toil and die, perhaps the latest forms of communication can do likewise. In his 2006 book “Code: Version 2.0”, a legal scholar, Lawrence Lessig noted that online communities were transcending the limits of conventional states—and predicted that members of these communities would find it “difficult to stand neutral in this international space”.

To many, that forecast still smacks of cyber-fantasy. But the rise of Facebook at least gives pause for thought. If it were a physical nation, it would now be the third most populous on earth. Mr Zuckerberg is confident there will be a billion users in a few years. Facebook is unprecedented not only in its scale but also in its ability to blur boundaries between the real and virtual worlds. A few years ago, online communities evoked fantasy games played by small, geeky groups. But as technology made possible large virtual arenas like Second Life or World of Warcraft, an online game with millions of players, so the overlap between cyberspace and real human existence began to grow.

From the users’ viewpoint, Facebook can feel a bit like a liberal polity: a space in which people air opinions, rally support and right wrongs. What about the view from the top? Is Facebook a place that needs governing, just as a country does? Brad Burnham of Union Square Ventures, a venture-capital firm, has argued that the answer is yes. In the spirit of liberal politics, he thinks the job of Facebook’s managers is to create a space in which citizens and firms feel comfortable investing their time and money to create things.

Facebook has certainly tried to guide the development of its online economy, almost in the way that governments seek to influence economic activity in the real world, through fiscal and monetary policy. Earlier this year the firm said it wanted applications running on its platform to accept its virtual currency, known as Facebook Credits. It argued that this was in the interests of Facebook users, who would no longer have to use different online currencies for different applications. But this infuriated some developers, who resent the fact that Facebook takes a 30% cut on every transaction involving credits.

Like any ruling elite that knows it relies on the consent from the ruled, Facebook seeks advice from its members on questions of governance. It allows users to vote on proposed changes to its terms of service, and it holds online forums to solicit views on future policies. And like any well-intentioned politico, Facebook makes blunders: its members were infuriated earlier this year by changes to its policy that made public some previously private information. If Mr Zuckerberg achieves his goal of creating the world’s favourite “social utility”, he may need to give users a more formal say—a bit like a constitution.

Experience shows that networks which neglect governance pay a price. Take MySpace, which was once much bigger than Facebook: its growth stalled a couple of years ago when its managers let the site become too disorderly. There is a thin line, it seems, between the freedom that spurs creativity and a free-for-all.

For now at least, real governments still have some aces; they can simply pull the plug on the service. Facebook is blocked in China, and in May it was temporarily cut off in Pakistan, under a court ruling about a page that advertised a contest to draw the Prophet Muhammad. Perhaps Facebook is less a nation than a giant transnational movement—comparable to the Red Cross or the Catholic church—which has an overarching aim and can speak to governments on something like equal terms.

As Facebook’s masters present it, their mission is just to make the world more open and connected—and bring closer the “global village” predicted in the 1960s by Marshall McLuhan, a futurologist they love. Their claim to be accelerators has some force. Facebook’s success “raises a lot of issues that we thought were a generation away,” says Edward Castronova, a professor at Indiana University. One of them is how much impact virtual economies and currencies will have on real world ones. The Chinese government has repeatedly curbed virtual currencies. Last year it banned their use to buy real-world goods and services, in part because of concerns about the impact on the yuan.

Facebook may also influence how governments supply services, and compete to provide them. For instance, the firm allows members to use their Facebook profiles to log into other sites around the web, creating a sort of passport. A similar facility could help people on the move retain access to government services. And then there is the question of how social networks will change politics. Clearly, they help to stimulate discussion and marshal action, and they let governments trawl for and test proposals. When Messrs Cameron and Zuckerberg conferred, the main topic was how to get new ideas for cutting public spending.

Like many diplomatic relationships, theirs was fickle. Days after the chat, Facebook was rebuked by the British government for allowing tributes to a murderer to be posted. The firm refused to remove the offending page, which was later taken down by its creator. “Facebook is a place where people can express their views and discuss things in an open way, as they can and do in many other places,” it said. Mr Zuckerberg may not have any territory, but he was determined to stand his ground.