This article in Context Magazine was published in the April-May 2001 issue.
In the decades before World War II, an artists' colony coalesced outside New York in the bosky Connecticut hills where Norwalk, Wilton, and New Canaan come together. Called Silvermine -- and still inhabited today by writers, cartoonists, musicians, and painters -- the community cannot be precisely drawn on any map. It has been called not so much a place as a state of mind.
Something similar is happening on today's Internet. Hundreds, if not thousands, of so-called cybernations are being formed on every continent by like-minded Web colonists who share a sense of destiny -- or perhaps just a sense of humor.
At the goofy end of the cybernation spectrum is the Aerican Empire, "the Monty Python of micronationalism," according to its site. It was conceived in 1987 in the mind of Eric Lis, who was five years old at the time. While most kids drop their imaginary friends, Lis, by 1990, was ready to declare his imaginary land an empire.
Until 1997, the empire's citizens were just Lis and a few kids in his neighborhood, many of whom would join him in playing the fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons. Then, a friend told him about cybernations, and Lis introduced the rest of the world to Aerica (pronounced like, "Ah, Eric," with an "a" on the end of it). Today there are 300 self-proclaimed citizens.
With holidays such as Saint Bill's Day, "honoring the ultimate nerd," Aerica has made silliness its national cause.
Similarly wacky sites are the Purple Bunny Federation, and Roadkills-R-Us, which says it sells flattened armadillos for $2.50. The Roadkills site, also known as "Flatland" (get it?), briefly showed up on the commercial radar five years ago, when the large toy store chain Toys "R" Us Inc. threatened legal action for name infringement. The site's response was, in essence, "so sue us," and the site's creator, Miles O'Neal, says the matter is stalemated.
At the serious end of the spectrum is the Dominion of Melchizedek. Its modern history goes back to the 1950s when David Pedley, an entrepreneur, was encouraged by his Bible teacher to resurrect a place whose name has origins in citations from the Old Testament. Pedley passed this task on to his son Tzemach "Ben" David, who has been working ceaselessly on the project since the '70s. Ben David's goal is to gather believers together into a physical community that, according to his interpretation of the Bible, will "usher in the millennium of peace and righteousness."
The dominion is smaller than the Duchy of Grand Fenwick (the tiny fictitious European nation that declared war on the U.S. in the 1959 Peter Sellers comedy, The Mouse That Roared), but Melchizedek does have its own bank, university, stock exchange, and a 99-year lease on an island in the South Pacific.
Melchizedek's leader -- who calls himself Dr. Tzemach Ben David Netzer Korem, Ph.D., a name that came to him during a revelation -- compares Melchizedek to such groups as the Knights of Malta, a religious order that owns no territory but has "diplomatic relations with dozens of countries."
Nearly as serious as Melchizedek is the Principality of Freedonia. Its leader, Prince John I, insists that Freedonia isn't a cybernation but "a new-country project." He says cybernations "are mostly role-playing enterprises, taken purely on a ‘for-fun' basis."
By contrast, Freedonia is designed as a real home for a person who "believes in libertarianism as a political philosophy but is frustrated by the fact that no country currently puts libertarianism into practice."
Freedonia began, whimsically enough, in March 1992 when Prince John -- who was 13 at the time and still known as John Alexander Kyle -- and his friends declared their Houston homes independent from the U.S. They chose the name Freedonia after the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup. Five years later, the project turned more serious when Prince John set a goal to create a nation that, among other things, would legalize all drugs.
Freedonia has 280 citizens and "official representatives in 22 countries," Prince John says. He is searching for land within the desolate Somaliland Democratic Republic, near Ethiopia.
Similarly, Augustus Chang, who created the Republic of the Howland and Baker Islands , earnestly explains to site visitors that his "noncitizen-seeking" republic is "an imaginary model nation project in the Central Pacific Ocean exploring political, economic, and social aspects of what a nation there may have looked like." He adds, "It may be useful for other micronations." (Unlike cybernations, micronations exist in the physical world and have been around for decades. For example, in 1967 a family declared the sovereign state of Sealand on a tiny North Sea island that once had been a British military base.)
In its own way, the People's Cybernation is serious, too. The Web site tells visitors it was set up "to realize President Lincoln's [of-the-people] aspiration" and is "dedicated to the betterment of humanity" -- then bombards them with information on how to "double your Internet business within the next 97 days" or "buy a new car [at] $50 over retailers' costs."
Like the cybernations themselves, explanations for this explosion of nationhood run the gamut.
Cybernations have sprung up mostly because America's two-party system has disenfranchised the Nintendo generation, says Anthony Citrano, president of the Camden Technology Conference, a nonprofit group that hosts Web-celebrity gatherings in Camden, Maine. Cybernations give a voice to young people who have different political ideologies, usually libertarian, or who simply want to thumb their noses at authority, he says.
William Dutton, a professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication, says cybernations "grew out of the bulletin-board-based [online] communities that flourished in the 1980s." They appeal mainly to young people "who need a diversion from their workaday world," he says.
Most of the sites have humor, he says, noting that "as the Republic of Lomar puts it: ‘If your country does not recognize Lomar as a sovereign state, then Lomar citizenship and passports may be treated as novelty items.'"
Maybe the best thing about all these micro- and cybernations is that, so far, the only power they wield is over the imagination.
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