As the Internet fully embeds itself into the daily human experience, we as individuals and society have begun to live in hybrid realities of physical and non-physical communities. The Internet has introduced to humans a new cyber culture. And, saturated in this intangible novelty, we are yet to understand its full effects. It is clear, however, that virtual communities are replacing our physical communities, with non-physical, online social networks influencing how humans create individual and collective forms of identity through evolving modes of communication. While there exists a growing body of research related to how cyber culture is escalating the rise of radical nationalism, this paper takes a new approach to this topic and examines how online communities are deconstructing the conceptualization of personal and communal identity in relation to geographical proximity and nationhood in the global population by considering the work of Hank Green through the lens of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (2002). Anderson postures nationality as the expression of our geo-cultural sense of communal identity, representing not just a community you align with but the sense of personal identity you gain from it (Anderson 6–7).
Hank Green’s novels, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing (2018) and A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor (2020), known collectively as The Carl Saga, follow April May, a young woman and the first person to observe an extra-terrestrial robot-esque statue, (one of 64 to simultaneously appear around the world) later christened “Carl”. The Carls prove to be a single intelligence assigned to save civilization from its socially divisive and destructive trajectory. Throughout the series, April and her friends (in aid of Carl’s objectives) utilize the Internet and acquire influence as Internet personalities to try and inspire global cooperation, while antagonists likewise manipulate social and virtual reality technologies as mediums of division. Hank Green considers the influence of cyber culture, virtual spaces, and global social networks on conceptions of individual and collective identity and captures complexities that arise as the Internet replaces communities tied to sovereign states and geographical proximities with non-physical communities governed by “corporate autocracies” (hankschannel 16:05). Green spotlights Internet inequalities with the capacity to dictate social media algorithms and illuminates their effect on behaviour to influence cyber culture and infrastructure; thus producing communities organized around individual experience, ideologies, and projections of cyber identity.
Imagined Communities in a New Era of Virtual Media
Benedict Anderson argues that the new standardization of language and conception of simultaneity introduced through the invention of print capitalism stimulated a synchronization of conception of collective identity among larger regions (Anderson 24, 36). Anderson addresses the fragility of community upheld by these socially constructed systems by claiming communities “larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined” and thus communities should “be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined” (6). For Anderson, this manifests in the form of nationalism and communal identity constructed along lines of nation states aligned with linguistic identity delineated by the geographical breadth and limitations of print capitalism (Anderson 43–44). Accepting Anderson’s assertion of the essential power of modes and mediums of communication in facilitating illusions of communal identity, it follows that the Internet’s introduction of unprecedented advancements in humanity’s methods of information exchange has produced entirely novel “styles” by which communities can be “distinguished” (Anderson 6).
The Carl Saga explores the connectivity of identity and modes of communication by exploring the medium of the Internet as a means of communicating personal and collective identity through narrative. The nucleus of Green’s work observes that individual and collective identity is produced through systems of exchanging information/ideas and thus we must be aware and attentive to those systems and the ideas they uphold. Both Anderson and Green agree that modes of communication influence forms of collective identity; however, while Anderson (understandably) fails to anticipate the unprecedented impact of the technological revolution on information exchange, Green explores how physical forums of discourse are being replaced by virtual ones and their subsequent impact on identities.
Transitioning into a cyber-scape, Anderson’s core thesis is maintained while the organizing principle has changed; algorithmic parameters have replaced geographical proximities. Social media platforms such as YouTube, Tiktok, Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and Instagram, for example, facilitate trans-national social exchange through virtual networks. Each platform’s unique algorithms feed users content most likely to retain their attention. With few exceptions, none of these social media platforms strictly limit content by geographical parameters but propel a global exchange of ideas, experiences, and identities. Thus, realigning personal and collective identities by enabling communities, connected through networks of shared ideologies and interests rather than proximity, to virtually congregate.
Borderless instantaneous communication does not necessarily conclude that the Internet would eventually produce an anti-national effect and more virtual globalist communities. On the contrary, the Internet has done plenty to exacerbate and illuminate issues of radical nationalism. Yet, Green’s novels illuminate the Internet’s theoretical capacity for global unity and suggest it may only need to be provoked by a sufficient collective motive. In An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, following the seemingly passive extra-terrestrial contact of Carl, humanity experiences a contagious dream. The Dream is the same for each person; wandering alone in a city scape filled with puzzles to be solved through sequences of actions to produce a hexadecimal computer programming code. The protagonist April May and her friends utilize the Internet and create a specialized Discord forum called The Som to collect the hexadecimal codes and find the Dream’s ultimate message. The Som also facilitates discourse to solve more difficult puzzles deliberately designed to require collaborative knowledge (Green, Remarkable Thing 141). April May optimistically frames this as a unifying experience:
I felt very strongly that the Carls were a globally unifying force. For the first time ever, humanity was literally sharing a dream. It felt more like we were sharing a planet than ever before, and to me that felt like a gift given to us by the Carls. (216)
The Som, and the global community who congregate there virtually, are essential to recognizing the universality of the Dream and solving its sequences. The Dream represents both the individual experience and collective nature of global threats (extra-terrestrial, pandemic, climate change) and the potential for the Internet to create virtual spaces of global collaboration to resolve these collective threats. Green forecasts the increasingly borderless future of our world and showcases the Internet’s capacity for global communities and producing spaces of trans-national collaboration as the optimal, if not essential, future for humanity.
While the Internet obliterates the geographical limitations of print capitalism, to relegate Anderson as passé would be reductive. By posturing that all communities are imagined, Anderson ultimately argues that imagined national communities are a form of manufactured nationalized nostalgia which never existed to begin with, contradicting the idea that national identity was ever physical or geographical in nature but rather solely a socially constructed experience (Anderson 7). Virtual communities congregating in intangible spaces reverberate the truth of which technology has only advanced acknowledgment; large physical communities have never truly existed. Humanity has always functioned as a conceptual community population and the integration of technology has only facilitated iterations of community natural to our modes of communication and social infrastructures. During a revelatory moment at the climax of An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, April May, having amassed a substantial online community, says via a video live stream:
You. You mass of humans who I know nothing about, you are my best friend. And you know why? Because you like me, and no single person’s love can compete with even casual regard from a hundred million. That impossible, inhuman wave of support. Not inhuman because you aren’t humans, inhuman because no human is designed to process it, to understand it. (Green, Remarkable Thing 311)
In a perhaps quintessential illustration of Anderson’s theory, April May encapsulates the imaginary nature of community in a virtual world through her sincere claim that a “mass of humans” she knows “nothing about” are her “best friend” (311). While millions of individuals simultaneously engaged in a virtual event, such as a ‘live stream’, can simulate an experience of communal connection, an individual member will likely never meet or have a relationship with all the fellow members manifesting a simulated community which, as April May said, “no human is designed to process” or “to understand” (311).
The False Reality
Benedict Anderson’s theory continues to be applicable to virtual communities when we further examine the structures which emerge in the reorganization of populations in cyber-spaces. Green, in his novels, and supported through his non-literary rhetoric, communicates a concern for cyber ecosystems to be algorithmically manipulated by privileged hierarchies. In a YouTube video titled I Think I Live in a Corporate Autocracy (hankschannel), Hank Green expresses validation for why we naturally conceptualize the Internet as an extension of our ‘real world’ (presuming social norms and rights must maintain through ethernet cables), but states that this is ultimately a false premise. While social media platforms have greatly democratized media production, functionally permitting any user to create as much as consume, and this can serve to subvert and decentralize narratives, it is ultimately limited to the constraints of terms of service, subject to non-neutral algorithms, and dictated by CEOs. These platforms are engineered by humans whose biases and prejudices are subsequently, even if subliminally, automated into algorithms.
For Green, the non-neutrality of Internet spaces becomes increasingly significant as humanity increasingly begins to ‘live’ in these online spaces (hankschannel 16:35). In A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor, this point is illustrated through the ‘Altus Space’, a virtual reality platform with significant social and economic influence. Of this platform, April May states:
We have to realize that the places where we share information are not services we use, they are places where we live. And if we live in the Altus Space, Altus will control our lives. This platform should not be something that a few billionaires have complete control over (Green, Foolish Endeavor 419).
This warning is reiterated throughout Green’s second novel; floodlighting the power imbalances inherent but not limited to cyber communities April states, “algorithms are already programming society” (447) and asks what happens when this small group of people realizes this power or chooses to use it. The Internet has destabilized the influence of nationalism but has left a power vacuum. While subverting the need for geography in congregating communities, it has not neutralized the terms by which humans gather.
Throughout The Carl Saga, Hank Green artfully provokes the reader to consider the unsubstantiated forms of power distribution exacerbated by the Internet and the effects this produces on our sense of community and identity. Perhaps the most striking example is the revelation that, despite being the protagonist and catalyst for the plot of the entire series, there is nothing particularly special or chosen about April May except that she was, according to Carl’s calculations, the candidate most likely to successfully execute Carl’s plan. Green demonstrates how the complexity of our world and its unequal systems and preferences interacting with the complexity of the individual means that success is always influenced by privilege. Pontificating on the incessant human assumption “that power must always go to the people who deserve it”, Carl argues that humans “can’t stop believing that power organizes itself correctly because your entire understanding of the world is based on that single idea” (Green, Foolish Endeavor 425). Carl suggests this blind spot persists as narrative justifying the manifestation and sustainability of power systems: collective and personal narratives uphold sociological stasis and serve an explanatory function in relating the self or communal self to reality. Yet, Carl challenges that this fragile narrative simply masks the role of privilege in power structures, claiming, “the thing that is most exceptional about a powerful person is almost always their power” (203).
Anderson cites “religious community and the dynastic realm” as “cultural systems . . . out of which – as well as against which – nationalism came into being” (Anderson 12). Anderson views these “cultural systems” as having “self-evident plausibility” and dissects the centrality of hierarchy in the sustaining of these systems (12–19). Green, however, goes further and, while directly acknowledging this tendency of hierarchal cultural systems, challenges the reductive conclusion that these systems are inevitable or even meaningful. Stretching beyond the axiom of civilization’s social inequalities, Green showcases the Internet’s potential for creating more global unity, egalitarian representation, and access to information but pulls up short, revealing the virtual world is in fact a victim of the same structures of inequality plaguing the physical world. Despite its supranational potential, as Internet communities reorganize into virtual spaces where territories of nationhood do not exist, the same abstract organizational structure of governing bodies, concentrated power, and systems of inequality remain unchanged.
Inequality and the Internet
Hank Green’s exploration of themes of inequality and the Internet is fundamental to our reimagining of communities in virtual spaces. Bias and power imbalances manifested in the medium and culture of the Internet consequently impact the formation of cyber communities. Various iterations of cyber inequality generate the exclusion or inaccessibility of certain demographics from full participation in these virtual communities. Significantly, the intangibility of these virtual spaces does not mean that the consequences of this influence will be contained there.
Hank Green draws attention to several potential forms of Internet inequality in his series and especially in A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor, metaphorically explored through the virtual reality experience platform called the Altus Space. April’s friend Andy feels, for a time, convinced of the potential of the Altus Space for creating greater equality, empathy, and acceleration of human knowledge through the platform’s capacity for sharing human experience via virtual reality. Andy’s humanist enthusiasm for this technology is not unfounded but the Altus Space proves to have several barriers to accessibility for a variety of demographics, including the economic barrier to affording the necessary equipment and in-experience purchases (Green, Foolish Endeavor 305). Other prerequisites include: Internet access, the financial means for a lifestyle allowing significant access to the Altus Space, and a unique biological accessibility barrier called “body dislocation”, a condition where a person is not cognitively compatible with the virtual reality experience (182–183). Additionally, the Altus Space hosts heavy gender asymmetry in its userbase, likely a reflection of the similarly male-dominant population informing the Altus Space’s design (138–139, 361).
Hank Green uses the Altus Space as a metaphor to explore the Internet’s capacity for exploiting systems of power and the exacerbation of inequalities embedded into the Internet. The Altus Space utilizes the psycho-technological infrastructure originally created by Carl to facilitate the experience of The Dream – an experience intended for inspiring unity and collaboration. The Altus Space highjacks this potential for unity to create a platform with great potential but unequal accessibility, while being saturated in implicit bias and preferences dictated by the small group of individuals apparently involved in its design. Arguably, Green appears neither a cynic nor a true critic of the Internet but one who sees its great egalitarian potential and severe vulnerability to exploitation. Speaking about the rapid growth and influence of the Altus Space in a video she uploads to her YouTube channel, April says:
The People at Altus are right: Communication is humanity’s superpower. And every time we have increased our ability to communicate, society has shifted. In the short term, those shifts are really disruptive, but in the long term they’ve always been good. I am worried that things are moving too fast this time.
I’m not saying shut it down. I’m just saying, let’s take it a little more slowly. Move fast and break things is great for a business, but not for a society. Or the human mind. (Green, Foolish Endeavor 320)
As the medium of communication (and exchanging information) has radically evolved with the introduction of the Internet, Green seems to observe that this is a great source of stress on our society and the human mind.
The Internet has secured itself as the dominant medium of communication and information exchange in our world and we are yet to know the ultimate impact of this rapidly evolving new reality. Hank Green explores this new human experience through the literal virtual reality of the Altus Space and additionally utilizes Altus as a representation of how the virtual spaces we occupy are just as susceptible to systems of inequality as the physical world and that these do not remain contained to the non-physical realms of the Internet.
Cyber communities have provoked a challenge to our traditional modes of creating community in a style of reimagining Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. We are increasingly living in online spaces and while this transition of human interaction is technologically revolutionary, the infrastructure of community in physical and non-physical spaces is largely the same. While factors proposed by Anderson, such as print capitalism, contributed to the formation of imagined communities around ideas of national identity, it manifests that regardless of nationalistic motivations individuals have a desire to exchange an amount of individualistic freedom for belonging to a collective, even an imaginary one. Whether gathering in physical spaces organizing around national identity, or in online spaces through networks of shared ideology and passion, humans desire and inevitably will facilitate a simulation of community. Or, in Carl’s own words: “One of the most powerful traits of your system is how ardently you believe in your individuality while simultaneously operating almost entirely as a collective” (Green, Foolish Endeavor 315).
Alyssa Whiting, “Reimagining Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Living in Virtual Spaces and Cyber Autocracy in Hank Green’s ‘The Carl Saga'”, Alluvium, Vol 10, No.2 (2022), n.pag. Web 8 August 2022. DOI:https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v10.2.04
About the Author
Alyssa Whiting completed an MA in Modern Literature at Mary Immaculate College, Ireland and a BA in Art History at Utah Valley University, United States. Alyssa is intrigued by iterations of the Internet in contemporary literature and how this topic intersects with narrative and identity.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 2002.
Green, Hank. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing: A Novel. New York: Dutton, 2018.
Green, Hank. A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor: A Novel. New York: Dutton, 2020.
hankschannel. “I Think I Live in a Corporate Autocracy.” YouTube, 28 July 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3pkkSNRug4