In early 2023, 6.4 million people around the world watched the third episode of HBO’s post-apocalyptic new series, The Last of Us. The show is based off the 2013 video game of the same name which shows the effects of a pandemic that has transformed most of humankind into zombie-like creatures. We follow two protagonists in their journey across a post-apocalyptic United States.
But it’s their recent third episode that really made audiences, both fans and non-fans alike, tune in. Without giving too much of it away, the story focused on a survivor of the pandemic and his unlikely encounter with a fellow survivor, and how their relationship that blossoms over the course of a few decades ultimately ends in dramatic fashion. And people’s reactions to it have been equally dramatic: Variety called it “Heartbreaking,” while it was “heart-wrenching” for some, and “even sadder than you think” for many.
It was, as if, in the days after that episode aired, everyone felt a collective agony and heartbreak that rippled across the internet and its different social media platforms. In that moment, we were all one with each other, heartbroken and distressed over a fictional TV show. But emotionally together with each other, nonetheless.
And as the political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson would argue, this was because they were an imagined community.
We’ve all been a part of some imagined community
It was in 1983 when Benedict Anderson coined the term “imagined community” in his book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. In it, he initially sought to explain how a nation is constructed, calling it an “imagined community.” It’s imagined because “it entails a sense of communion or ‘horizontal comradeship’ between people who often do not know each other or have not even met.”
They could be separated by borders, have different beliefs, traits, attitudes, and history, but all of them are connected by virtue of belonging to the same collective group defined by their interests, actions, or experiences. It’s that intense feeling of togetherness that’s shared by a large group of people, not based on physical proximity but on emotion.
When Argentina won the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, millions of football fans around the world celebrated in pubs, living rooms, and stadiums as if they were part of the same crowd all cheering for the same team — because essentially, they were — even if a community imagined — but a community, nonetheless.
When Hermes live-streamed their Spring/Summer 2023 fashion show from Paris Fashion Week in October 2022, thousands of fashion lovers, Hermes patrons, and general fashion consumers on YouTube joined the A-list celebrities and fashion editors in the front row as one imagined community of haute couture lovers.
Imagined communities as limited and sovereign
Anderson’s concept of imagined communities is particularly interesting because he also describes them as both limited and sovereign. Despite their imagined status, they are limited because they are only made up of a certain number of people. Even the largest nations have boundaries; even the biggest communities have a finite number of members.
The imagined community of Argentinian football fans is limited in the sense that it only includes people who are fans of Argentinian football. Similarly, the imagined community of Hermes fashion consumers is limited to people who love Hermes’ fashion or follow fashion in general.
At the same time, these imagined communities are also sovereign in the sense that they aren’t bound by traditional forms of social organization or hierarchies. The group’s legitimacy “is not derived from divinity.”
Anderson’s concept implies that such communities are self-contained and self-determined, with their own set of rules and norms that are not subject to outside influence.
However, in reality, many imagined communities are not as sovereign as Anderson’s concept implies, as they are often subject to the influence of outside forces such as colonialism, imperialism, and global capitalism, or as we will see, for online communities, curation and moderation.
Now, when we mention a community, perhaps the first thing that comes to people’s minds are online communities — that group of people or accounts online who share a common interest and use the various tools and spaces of the internet to interact, communicate, and sometimes even create.
Looking at online communities through Anderson’s lens
The internet has taken the “imagined” part of “imagined communities” and made it virtual. But the principles have remained the same. Whether it’s a subreddit about home cooking, a Discord channel dedicated to tech, or a Facebook comment section, these “networked public spheres” have hosted virtual gatherings, providing a sense of belonging and connection for those who may not have access to physical communities, or are looking for likeminded people who share the same values, sick sense of humour, or niche interest.
It was German philosopher Jürgen Habermas’s concept of the public sphere that is said to be an integral part of the discourse on imagined communities. In his 1989 book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas argued that the public sphere was an area in civil society where members of the public could come together and engage in discourse about matters of public interest. He saw this as a central part of the democratic process, allowing for the exchange of ideas and opinions, and the formation of a collective opinion.
This is especially relevant today, as the internet and social media have provided us with the tools to create our own now networked public spheres, where we can engage in discourse and form our own collective opinions.
Harnessing the power of written text to form communities
As we’ve seen, Anderson’s concept can actually be used in relation to different forms of collective identity. As we, by nature, tend to gravitate towards topics we know and have an affinity to, in the process we also form a collective identity with those who share the same passions.
At t2, for example, we’re building our own imagined communities, genuine networked public spheres around the actions of reading and writing. Territories are what we call subculture communities.
They’re akin to article clubs or decentralized publishing houses that constantly seek relevant content to grow their culture. And their collaborative ownership is shared between all group members. Here, people can encounter, consume, and create good content and experience Anderson’s horizontal comradeship as other users do the same.
It also breaks the solitary disposition of reading and writing by creating a more social and collaborative relationship between people. This also makes everything a bit more fun. Imagine hundreds of topic-driven imagined communities, unrestrained and with the power to manage themselves with a social network on top, unfolding a landscape of their collective intellect, knowledge, and culture.
For Joel Herman, PhD researcher at Trinity College Dublin, “This modern world is infinitely more connected than the one Anderson set out to describe, but it still holds similar ingredients.” Now, it is written text, “whether physical or digital, read, watched, or listened to, [that] remains as a catalyst and expression of the human impulse to connect and communicate.”
Digital innovations have given us the opportunity to imagine ourselves as part and participants in a community united in different media. It was the written text that first brought about the idea of imagined communities. Now, it is still the written text that pushes people, now online, to create their own communities. Reading is usually a solitary act. But thanks to new digital platforms, it doesn’t have to be a lonely one.