The data scientists at the social media company in Palo Alto had previously produced a beautiful map of the global friendships captured by Facebook, but several more rigorous questions still remained: “how, really, is the world of Facebook connected? How strong are the ties between different segments of society, across geography and demography?” More specifically, how can we quantify country-to-country community relations? It’s fairly obvious that Norway, Denmark, and Sweden have strong ties, as do New Zealand and Australia. But what about Germany and Turkey, or China and India?
The results of the initial analysis are striking: European empires still rule. “We were struck,” writes Facebook data scientist Johan Ugander, “by an especially interesting structure that emerged: when mapping the friendship ties connecting once-expansive trade empires such as Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, the maps bear an uncanny resemblance to the borders of the former empires, long since past. Despite long periods of independence in some instances, the social fabric of these countries frequently reveals a lasting impression of their former history.” (You can investigate the maps in more detail here via The Economist.)
The Facebook data goes a long way towards suggesting the shape of the networks that make the world move today. Ties between Spaniards and, for example, Bolivians are much stronger than those with Hungary. The Portuguese have more friends in São Paulo – or Luanda or Maputo – than in Amsterdam or Belgrade. Dutch ties with Indonesia are not particularly strong, but Facebook users in former Dutch colony Suriname (on the northern coast of South America) form an exclave of friends for the Dutch in an otherwise unfamiliar South America. It’s true that countries like the UK have especially strong relationships with Poland (there are almost as many Poles as Indians living in Britain today). That testifies to the relatively recent effect of the fall of the Iron Curtain and intra-European labor migration on social networks. But such cases are the exception, not the rule.
The data punctures some of the premature predictions made by only a few years ago by pundits about European unity. As recently as 2004, American Europeanist and Green Jeremy Rifkin adulated the EU and its enlightened ‘European’ citizens. With their higher quality of life, long vacations, and lavish welfare systems, Europe’s citizens offered an alternative to the American dream and a liberal vision for the brave new world of the 21st century.
The only problem – besides the fact that many European states were in fact broke – was that ‘Europeans’ didn’t exist as such. The children of the technocrats in Brussels might have been taking the train ‘from Paris to Berlin’, when not attending student strikes, but they were doing so as Frenchmen or Germans, not nascent ‘Europeans.’ More often, researchers at Oxford or Cambridge collaborate with colleagues in Cape Town or Palo Alto than Zürich. French élites supported Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali long after other Western countries had withdrawn support for the leader of the former French protectorate. As the debacle of European non-coördination in the face of the financial crisis has demonstrated, politically, ‘Europe’ is a fiction. Those former colony-metropole bilateral ties aren’t.
Indeed, as analysts like Joel Kotkin and Shashi Parulekar have written, it’s the networks forged much longer ago that define the shape of the social world in the 21st century: the Anglo World that exploded in the late 19th and early 20th century in the British Empire, its Dominions, and former American colonies; or the Indian or Chinese diasporas, which go back even further. Some new partnerships, like India’s delicate dance between Washington, Jerusalem, and Tehran, are important to follow today. But for a general framework for understanding how the world works today, or the robustness of these new bilateral partnerships, keep these longer-term structures in your News Feed.
Language and culture: they both matter much, much more than cosmopolitan elites would have us believe.