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Summary:

Newspapers and social media are seen as opposite ends of the media spectrum now, and in many cases as adversaries — but not all that long ago, newspapers themselves were a very powerful form of social media

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

Newspaper

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.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Everett Collection and Flickr user Arvind Grover

  1. Nicholas Paredes Tuesday, December 10, 2013

    I sold a four volume set of books discussing the history of news some years ago, but one point stood out. Colonial papers had pages at the back that were blank. More than distributing letters and notes, they were a platform for such notations.

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  2. I’ve long espoused that newspapers were the original social media, but with one key difference. Due to the ingrained culture and the fact that Letters to the Editor are handled by the editorial staff, there is no dialogue. The paper puts out articles and opinion, and readers write in. They also comment on digital feeds. But it would be pulling teeth to then get the editorial staff to engage, and they shouldn’t. That’s where either a marketing staff or a community liaison should come it, but instead, the newspapers ignore the commenting other than to count the number of comments with pride that they hit a mark in producing desired content. The community building and engagement is totally ignored, showing our industry’s continued mis-understanding of both its basic importance as a community vehicle, and the nature of community building through rapport not just reporting.

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    1. I couldn’t agree more, Rhona — thanks for the comment.

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  3. Even if the the two have a lot in common it’s not the same. There is a social part to newspaper are don’t deny that but in my opinion they where information driven when Facebook and Google plus are more trend driven.

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  4. edmundsingleton Saturday, December 14, 2013

    My father’s favorite part of the print newspaper was the letters to the editor, I guess that is why I love this space so much…

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  5. Aleksandr Solodilov Saturday, December 14, 2013

    Unfortunately, I can not agree. This article is written through the eyes of the author. And where is the depth? Where the mind that comes from the heart? There is light. There is truth. Truth that animates the print media of the 21st century. With best Regards.

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  6. James T. McGuiness Tuesday, December 17, 2013

    So-called “social media” is a primitive. It is designed by the products of an antiquated educational system which had no formal social development imperatives or modalities. It has no distinguished new design which illuminates a “commons” and is funded by data miners and advertisers with it’s priorities on serving them to achieve profit and pay shareholder dividends. “Social media” is about as concerned with social development and facilitation of user community progress as McDonalds is concerned about the very same.

    But with McDonalds you pay for something and you get something. With “social media” you pay for nothing with actual money and lend yourself to exploitation for the profit of others for absolutely subjective novelty you are not prepared for because you have also come through the same neglectful Industrial Age factory system which has assumed that without authority there is only chaos. No system which reflects such little trust and faith in its human subjects prepares anyone for the POWER of real civilization advancement.

    If there is to be a digital revolution it must be asserted by the youth. And that must take the vision to encompass authority dynamics and supplant them with order which makes a contract to LEAD THE ESTABLISHMENT which now entrusts youth to show us our future. An entrepreneurial venture on the margins which places individual motivation before the cart of learning will peck away at the neglect and dysfunction of systems which are complacent with failure and “miss”. I don’t know of a young person who can lead that and I have become old in discovering it. I just hope not too old to know that it has started in absolute earnest–ceding “news” to the existing media establishment and taking digital journalism and historianship in the direction of PROGRESS (with no data mining, no commercialism whatsoever intruding on the direction. When your journalism allows you to help shape the future, the ideal of motivation pulling the cart of learning will be achieved. And humanity will have a sustainable progress engine to a new level of civilization.

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    1. Interesting comparison and point of view. To me, social media and blogging are just different vehicles of thought but require a very low barrier to entry and offer virtually no standards of quality.
      Therefore, consumers of this content decide their own level of engagement and receive the benefits or deficits relative to their inputs. The general utility and overall benefit of this content ecosystem reflects the character of the respective micro and macro communities created. I quite like the multitude of content options and the freedom the medium permits…the decentralization and democratization of community conversation. Right now, people are lazy and will probably stay that way until they are forced to engage at a more rigorous intellectual level that will move society forward. But on a practical level, social media / blogging can and will help Americans return to their colonial roots and resist the modern incarnations of tyranny. To me all this innovation is overhyped and doesn’t do much of anything new…just differently and over time the efficiencies eventually accrue to the point where new possibilities are finally created…but real significant evolution happens much more slowly.

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