There are a host of complex reasons why the newspaper industry is in the shape it is — including the disruption of the print advertising model that most of the business was based on — but there’s no question that the rise of social media, including blogs and Twitter and Facebook, has accelerated that process by fragmenting the market. So it’s more than a little ironic that newspapers themselves were very much like social media, and specifically the blogosphere, long before the internet.
Tom Standage, digital editor of The Economist, makes this point in a Medium post — a point that is a subset of the argument he makes in his recent book “Writing on the Wall: Social Media — The First 2,000 Years.” As Standage describes it, one of the earliest social networks in the U.S. was a network of newspapers in New England, with Benjamin Franklin at the center.
Franklin, of course, wasn’t just an inventor who messed around with electricity and later became a Founding Father of the U.S. He was also the editor of a newspaper called the Philadelphia Gazette, and subsequently became deputy postmaster-general of the colonial U.S. In the latter position, he helped allow the free exchange by mail of newspapers and pamphlets both within and between the colonies, which created a kind of prototype blogosphere made of print.
“Small and local, with circulations of a few hundred copies at best, such newspapers consisted in large part of letters from readers, and reprinted speeches, pamphlets and items from other papers. They provided an open platform through which people could share and discuss their views with others. They were, in short, social media.”
Newspapers were a kind of social network
It’s easy to forget when we look at globe-spanning newspapers like the New York Times or Guardian that newspapers began as little more than Facebook-style bulletin boards made up of the 18th-century version of classified ads, poetry, letters and dispatches of various kinds, many written by readers and poorly edited (if at all). Some were just pamphlets — like “Common Sense,” the famous pamphlet written by Thomas Paine, or John Dickinson’s “Letters from a Farmer,” which were printed in the Pennsylvania Chronicle.
Standage argues that this open social network of words and print helped create the atmosphere that allowed the American Revolution to occur, which isn’t really that different from the argument that social media such as Facebook helped create the kind of environment in Egypt and Tunisia that led to what some called the “Arab Spring” (although the aftermath of those revolutions hasn’t been quite as rosy).
“The revolution was certainly helped along by America’s unusually free and open media ecosystem. The circulation of letters, pamphlets and newspapers and the resulting interchange of ideas helped bind together the separate colonies and united them behind a common cause.”
In a nutshell, Standage believes (as I do) that the “mass media” marketplace we have come to associate with the newspaper industry — with giant chains of papers spanning the continent and printing huge sums of money for their proprietors — was mostly a historical anomaly, one that prevailed for specific social and technological reasons during the 1950s-1990s, and that we are now returning to an age when the news was much more social. Whether this is for better or worse, of course, is a question that remains to be answered.