Can online communication help us achieve world peace? The Economist seems to think it’s unlikely in A cyber-house divided. But London desis and cricket fans, it turns out, are two groups who are working toward that goal by building bridges across the divisions.
With its global reach and relative freedom, the internet could be a great opportunity for people separated by war, religion, color, class or other borders to connect and learn about each other’s common interests and concerns. But reality, as described by The Economist, is different: “Research suggests that the internet is not so radical. People are online what they are offline: divided, and slow to build bridges.”The research referred to includes danah boyd’s social media research on how MySpace and Facebook mirror and magnify social, political and class divides, and the research of Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda ViÃ©gas on how blacks and whites, and liberals and conservatives, use hashtags on Twitter. Despite the divisions replicated or magnified online, people are still trying to use the web to connect across that divide. The Economist brings up the example of Facebook site Peace on Facebook which seeks to “decrease world conflict.”
Peace on Facebook keeps a ticker of friend connections made each day between people from rival places. Israelis and Palestinians, the site claims, made about 15,000 connections on July 25th, the most recent available day.
Peace on Facebook offers data for India and Pakistan, too. That is even harder to put in context. Pakistan has banned Facebook in the past, and offers too few users to qualify even for independent estimates. John Kelly, founder of Morningside Analytics, a firm that analyses social networks, examined links between blogs and twitter accounts in India and Pakistan and discovered two hubs that link the two countries. South Asian expats in London who self-identify as “Desis”–people from the sub-continent–link freely to each other and to their home countries. And cricket fans in both countries link up spontaneously.
My own interpretation based on no data at all but reading about these findings is that the love of sports and diasporic identities might be the kind of common interests that get people to cross the social, political and racial divisions online to connect with others.
One last note that might give us hope for the web’s potential to contribute to world peace; according to Morningside Analytics, four websites consistently account for links between countries–YouTube, Wikipedia, the BBC and Global Voices Online. So the next time you find yourself in the middle of an international exchange in the YouTube comments, you might be part of the peace process.