RFE/RL -- The world's largest social network, Facebook, has finally listed Kosovo as its own country -- more than five years after the breakaway territory proclaimed independence from Serbia and after more than 100 countries around the world have extended formal recognition.
The French news agency AFP, on November 20, reported that Kosovars who wanted to create or promote a Facebook account would now have the option of choosing "Kosovo" as their location. Until now most users simply had the option of "Serbia."
The move affected some 200,000 Facebook users in Kosovo, who overnight were shifted from Serbia (or in some cases Albania) to Kosovo.
Kosovo's prime minister, Hashim Thaci, welcomed the move, saying that senior Facebook executives had informed him earlier in the week about the company's decision. He said it would have especially positive effects for Kosovo businesses.
Kosovo's minister for EU integration, Vlora Citaku, went even further in her enthusiasm, stating on her Twitter account that Facebook now "recognizes Kosovo as a state." She included the hashtag #digitaldiplomacy with the tweet, underscoring the increasing importance that social-media websites have for smaller, emerging countries like Kosovo.
Facebook confirmed the move to RFE/RL, though was quick to tamp down any suggestion that Facebook had the power to "recognize" Kosovo (or indeed any other country).
Facebook said in an email to RFE/RL: "Companies have clearly no role to play in the formal recognition of countries as this is a matter for the international community to decide. We do try to ensure that our service meets the needs of our users and so will offer options for checking in and targeting communications that reflect geographical designations that are in common usage."
The move appeared to validate the activities of groups like DigitalKosovo and others who have tried to raise public awareness of the importance to the economy of being correctly identified by websites like Facebook (as well as other e-commerce sites like hotel-bookers, car-rental agencies, and internet retailers).
The move is likely to help smaller, independent entrepreneurs most of all.
In a report, RFE/RL's Balkan Service cited a 22-year-old Kosovo-based fashion designer, Besa Hoxha, who had long planned to set up her own business to promote local designers through Facebook but was thwarted by the "Serbia" designation.
With Facebook's decision now to list Kosovo as a location, she said it will be easier to find and promote local designers. For potential buyers outside the country, it will also be easier to identify Kosovo-based businesses.
In addition to helping Kosovo, the move underscores the overwhelming -- and sometimes uncomfortable -- importance of Facebook with its approximately 1.2 billion monthly active users.
Facebook did not comment on what prompted it in this instance to identify Kosovo as a location, but clearly the move has vast implications -- and not just for Kosovo's relatively small user base.
Facebook and companies like it, including Twitter and LinkedIn, can improve or diminish access to the digital economy for whole countries seemingly with the flip of a switch. At least Kosovars now appear to be in charge of their own domain.
-- Mark Baker