Imagined Communities and Digital Nation Building on Instagram
University of Georgia
Citation: McGinn, Emily and Ben Jahre. “Imagined Communities and Digital Nation Building on Instagram.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 21, 2019. doi:10.20415/hyp/021.t01
Abstract: Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities is a fixture in discussing nationalism and the nation and in classes discussing postcolonial theory. It is often taught alongside texts like Edward Said’s Orientalism and Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. The concepts in the text draw on Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis and theories of capital to present a history of nationhood created through the formation of secular notions of comraderies facilitated by shared language and the rise of print capitalism. This assignment is best suited for an intro to literary theory, postcolonial theory class, or any class that deals with theories of the nation.
Keywords: pedagogy, literature, theory, community, social media, nation.
For Benedict Anderson, the nation is constituted by a shared imaginary construct, a shared sense of simultaneity, or borrowing from Walter Benjamin ‘empty, homogeneous time,’ epitomized by the newspaper page, a collection of disparate events grouped only by their occurrence on the same day and relative time:
The idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogenous, empty time is a precise analogue of the idea of the nation, which also is conceived as a solid community moving steadily down (or up) history. An American will never meet, or even know the names of more than a handful of his 270,000,000-odd fellow Americans. He has no idea of what they are up to at any one time. But he has complete confidence in their steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity. (Anderson 26)
Today, when the imagined community of the nation is no longer defined by the shared existence of the newspaper page, as world languages are lost to the dominance of just a few, and as communication is increasingly taking place through images and emoji, this text provides the perfect opportunity to test theories of nation and belonging through the “democratizing” force of social media. As the world gets smaller through instant access to media of all forms and information is passed across and through national boundaries, what happens to the concept of the nation and nationalism?
Through this text, we hope to engage ideas of social media in both form and theory while encouraging students to think critically about the ways they participate consciously or unconsciously in the formation of a new digital world culture where nation is both reinscribed and negated.
The following two classroom assignments test Anderson’s ideas of nation in a world that is moving beyond the limits of the printed page. First, students will use Instagram to explore the concept of “empty homogeneous time” using a class hashtag to collect the images. Together we will examine what constitutes a “nation” from a local and a global perspective. Second, students will follow this model to test a hypothesis of digital nation building on the social media platform of their choice. In addition to interrogating quotidian technologies, these assignments ask students to create a hypothesis/thesis driven argument that requires a deep understanding of the theoretical principles proposed by the text in order to build a successful test and critical analysis in their essays.
Empty Homogenous Instagram Time Course assignment
Instagram Collective assignment
Students will use social media to explore Anderson’s concept of “empty homogeneous time.” Anderson adapts this term from Walter Benjamin to examine simultaneity imagined through a shared print culture, particularly of newspapers in the 20th century, that functioned to cement a feeling of belonging or participation in a nation.
To explore this notion in the 21st century, students will use Instagram to post simultaneously at a designated time under our class hashtag. With a gallery of simultaneous snapshots, we will discuss the nature of shared time and simultaneity when the boundaries of print culture have been torn open by the immediacy of social media. Can we interpret this gallery like a newspaper? How might we rethink the idea of “nation” and comradery in the modern age?
In addition, students will explore the concepts of “nation” building on different social media platforms. Where “nation” here is represented by the imagined community of the university, in what ways does each platform promote the idea of belonging and comradeship? Does the accessibility of print culture, now duplicated and often replaced in an ever evolving stream online, broaden our notion of Anderson’s “Deep Horizontal Comradeship” or does the vastness of that space cause a strengthening of our ideas of community? Develop a hypothesis and test it on the platform of your choice. The hypothesis is the basis of a thesis statement. For example, “the simultaneous events on Instagram revealed the concept of nation because…,” or “Instagram creates a new sense of belonging, a new sense of nation because…,” or “a shared hashtag is not enough to foster a sense of community because…” Turn in screenshots of comments or interactions (or lack of comments and interaction) and explain how they prove or disprove your hypothesis.
Webpage with sample photos from a dry-run using #benny1011
In Class Time and Training
Most students tend to have a high level of familiarity with social media, so these assignments should not require much training. This is especially true for the individual assignment where students can pick the social media platform they are most familiar with and interested in using.
The most time-intensive piece will likely be explaining to the class the way in which the assignments will create the idea of empty homogeneous time, and outlining the main components of the assignment (taking photos at the same time, using the class hashtag, etc.).
Tips & Tricks
- Instagram accounts must be public for photos to be visible. One way to get around this is to create a shared class Instagram account that is public by default.
- United by a shared hashtag, users outside of the class may become participants. The hashtag can be used to think about what nation and community can mean in a digital world and whether or not it creates a nation or institutes borders within the global environment of Instagram.
- Some students may not use Instagram, and while ideally everyone would engage with the same platform, this assignment could technically be done entirely through email or on various platforms.
- Not all students may have access to a smartphone or camera. If available, talk to the library about lending out equipment.
- Our example collected the photos using “Social Media Stream” on Wix. There are many different tools and apps for this depending on where/how you will be collecting photos.
- Pick as specific a time as possible (e.g. we chose 10/11, at 12:13pm) to most effectively capture the concept of empty homogeneous time (e.g. what does the campus look like in the mid-afternoon? Are there shared activities?).
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso, 2006. (Chapter 1 Introduction and Chapter 2 Cultural Roots)
Benjamin, Walter. On the Concept of History. Translated by Harry Zohn, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1974. (Optional for intro classes)
Modified assignment for grades 7-12
We have created an alternate version of this experiment in more generalized terms with learning outcomes more appropriate for middle and high school students.
Connectivity is central to modern life and, for students, social media is at the heart of creating a sense of closeness and proximity. Rarely do we stop to think about what that virtual community looks like, or feels like, for students. This experiment aims to freeze time. The goal is to capture a simultaneous moment in the fast paced world of social media and connect these posts through a hashtag. In this way, we can stop to look at the process of community building online and students can examine their own participation in digital culture, discuss the construction of identity through images, and critique the technologies they use on a daily basis.
Instagram Collective assignment
To explore this notion of collectivity in the 21st century, students will use Instagram to post simultaneously at a designated time under a class hashtag.
[Alternatives to this assignment could include taking a series of photos during the course of the day one at 8:15, 12:15 and 3:15 to capture different parts of the day and assemble 3 different galleries]
With a gallery of simultaneous snapshots, we will discuss the nature of social media and instant culture. What similarities exist across the pictures? What can we learn about the photographer from the post? What makes these photos distinct from each other? What are strategies or methods to maintain individuality and be a part of a group at the same time?
Possible Learning Outcomes:
- Gain skills in interpreting images
- Critical engagement with digital culture
- Reflect on the nature of Internet culture and relative permanence of digital images
In addition, students will explore the concepts of “nation” building on different social media platforms. Where “nation” here is represented by the community of the school, in what ways does each platform promote the idea of belonging? Develop a hypothesis and test it on the platform of your choice. Turn in screenshots of comments or interactions (or lack of comments and interaction) and explain how they prove or disprove your hypothesis.
Possible Learning Outcomes:
- Practice hypothesis/thesis based writing
- Gain proficiency in analyzing digital culture