Internet City-States

And Their Digital Democracies.

Ancient Mesopotamia

If home is where the heart is, then where you live is where your mind is. For many people, that’s on the internet.

In 2020, the average American spent 7 hours and 50 minutes online per day. That’s nearly 120 full days spent online during the year — equivalent to spending every single moment from January 1 through April 30 online.

Much of this time online is spent building, creating, consuming, and communicating. As a result, almost every industry — including retail, banking, payments, automobiles, and more — has been disrupted by our increasingly digital world.

But when’s the last time we rethought geography? (And no, I don’t mean re-drawing lines on a map). Our current, terrestrial notions of geography have gone relatively unchanged for centuries. 200 years ago, a stake in the ground and property deed reflected ownership of that piece of land — not significantly different from what we do today. Nations have almost always been defined by physical borders and scarcity of land has time and again led to conflict.

Yet on the internet, borders aren’t nationalized, ownership rights are complicated, and the potential domains are endless. Physical notions of geography don’t map well to an intangible world.

If we think of the internet as a new world, still in its earliest stages (it’s just under 40 years old, after all), then it becomes important to compare developments online with a proper starting point. So much of the activity on the internet — from constructing fundamental infrastructures to organizing ourselves and then figuring out where we belong — mirrors activity in early civilizations. Thus, to understand where the internet is headed, it may be useful to look back nearly five thousand years, to ancient Mesopotamia.

In Mesopotamia, people organized in city-states. These city-states served as important centers of economic, political, and cultural life — hubs for ideas, artistry, and innovation.

The city-states of the internet are online communities. They’re metropolises flourishing with skill and energy. At the core of each community are the strongest believers and backers; the outer boroughs are populated by varying degrees of those less engaged than at city-center.

Social networks — Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Discord, etc. — seem like the roads. Some are more traversed than others. Some people stick solely to the freeway while others prefer exploring the rugged backroads. Communities build outposts along the way, often at the intersection of multiple roads. These are places where people can gather to build, create, consume, and communicate, and they’re what I call internet city-states.

As with any city-state, each of these communities has a governance structure (although most may not realize it). Followers are constituents, likes and dislikes are real-time feedback on what these constituents think, and unfollows can reflect extreme disapproval of certain “policies” (posts). Internet mayors are the people who have amassed major followings. You may know some of them well: Elon Musk, the Kardashians, Mr. Beast, and Charli D’amelio, to name a few. One post from any of these people can influence millions.

These dynamics create digital democracies.

In these city-states, the notion of voting for only one candidate is a false choice (unlike in traditional democratic structures). Votes are theoretically endless, limited only by your attention span and willingness to fill your feed. It’s a surprisingly realistic reflection of how people vote in the physical world, too: some vote in many elections (local, gubernatorial, national, etc.) while others only vote in one or two. The difference here, however, is that local, state, and national elections aren’t well-defined on the internet. Every community — no matter the size — is simply a city-state, just some city-states are bigger than others.

So why does this matter? For one, it helps put into perspective why regulation of the internet is so difficult. Our national governments are dealing with governments online, yet it’s unlikely they realize it. Grilling the people who built the roads and forcing them to add speed bumps may only encourage the online citizens using these roads to build other, less regulated roads. I don’t know the right way to go about regulating the internet, but focusing purely on the platforms doesn’t seem to be it.

Second, it should remind you of your power on the internet. Who you follow, when you choose to press the like button, and how you dedicate your time are all forms of votes in these digital democracies. Our generation is the first that’s had to live with a fully accessible history of everything we’ve done online and, for better or worse, actions taken now can (and likely will) resurface decades later. Do your diligence on communities and their internet mayors the same way you would on a candidate running for president.

Finally, framing internet communities as a collection of city-states highlights how much opportunity there still is. When people first learn about Mesopotamia (often in a grade school classroom), many think “wow that was a long time ago, so much has happened since then.” It was, and much has. If we think about the internet as still in its “Mesopotamia” days, it becomes evident how early we still are. Sometimes it's hard to grasp just how early we are because many of us (millennials and Gen-Z in particular) haven’t known a world without the internet.

I don’t claim to know what the future of the internet holds. But what I do know is that history tends to repeat itself. So, when thinking about where the internet is headed, consider adding a history textbook to your reading list. That’s what I’m doing.

Student at Wharton. Interested in transformative technologies (EVs, clean energy, food waste, digital payments, etc). Follow me on twitter @AlanaDLevin