OMG! Twitter has roots in the 17th century

STANFORD (US) — The explosion of information via social media is nothing new. Europeans were similarly bombarded with an avalanche of new communication forms during the 17th and 18th centuries.

“In the 17th century, conversation exploded,” says Anaïs Saint-Jude, director of the BiblioTech program at Stanford University. “It was an early modern version of information overload.”

Public postal systems were the equivalent of Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and smartphones. Letters crisscrossed Paris by the thousands daily. Voltaire was writing 10 to 15 letters a day. Dramatist Jean Racine complained that he couldn’t keep up with the aggressive letter writing. His “inbox” was full.


The Copernican Revolution, the invention of the printing press, and the exploration of the New World all needed to be mentally digested at the same time. There was a lot of catching-up to do. “It was a dynamic, troubling, messy period,” Saint-Jude says.

Stanford’s Mapping the Republic of Letters project shows that 40 percent of Voltaire’s letters were sent to correspondents relatively close by. And what was everyone saying?

Not much, says Dan Edelstein, associate professor of French and the principal investigator for the project. “It was the equivalent of a phone call, inviting someone to tea or saying, ‘OMG, did you know about the Duke?'”

Clearly, something had changed: Commercial postal services were on the rise. Though their prototypes had existed down through the centuries, they had mostly served government officials, and later (via the Medicis, for example) merchant and banking houses. Suddenly they were carrying private correspondence.

More people were writing, and more people could respond quickly, not only with friends and family, but across far-flung distances with people they had never met, and never would. Rather like some of our Facebook friends.

‘Facebook’ flash mobs

It was an era of “hyper-writing,” even addictive writing, Saint-Jude says. The aristocratic Madame de Sévigné wrote 1,120 letters to her married daughter in Brittany, beginning in the late 1670s, until her death in 1696, keeping her up-to-date with the goings-on in Paris. Although she is remembered today for her witty epistles, she never intended them to be saved, let alone published.

For a time, the streets of Paris were littered with little bits of papers—les billets—filled with a few words of scabrous and politically defamatory verse that were thrown to the public. Sound like Twitter?

Those little bits of could cause big trouble—Voltaire landed in jail for his verse. But those short, anonymous postings bypassed the government censor and were a way of organizing uprisings, much like this year’s Arab Spring.  Egyptian social networks were critical to coordinating demonstrators and drawing large crowds this year.

Social networks are key to almost all revolutions, Edelstein says. “The Egyptian youth organizers may have excelled at mobilizing people at a moment’s notice, but interestingly it’s another kind of social network that seems to be taking advantage of the post-revolutionary situation—the Muslim Brotherhood. “This network may be less agile, but it has created longer and better sustained bonds between members over time.”

Unlike Facebook networks that almost anyone can join, the Brotherhood echoed the older, more exclusive networks that vetted prospective members, such as France’s Jacobin clubs. “Flash mobs quickly splinter into cacophony,” Edelstein says.

Meanwhile, modern journalism was born, via a precursor of the blog. Nobles, such as Cardinal Mazarin, hired their own “journalists” to report on scandal and sex in the city. These writers set up bureaus around Paris to get the juiciest news, and it was written and copied and distributed to subscribers. Literary reviews and newspapers soon blossomed, along with letters to the editor and a new environment of literary and cultural criticism.

These new networks flexed a new kind of media punch. For example, Edelstein notes that across the ocean in America, the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 2 and the news was published in a newspaper on July 4.

“What we’re really celebrating is not the fact that 56 men signed the declaration, but rather that a new network of people emerged around the published declaration—a network that would ultimately become the United States,” he says.

The poster was invented to invite more and more people to more and more public events—theater, for example, became the dominant art form in the 17th century. Posters mobilized these slow-motion “flash mobs.”

The new spaces we have created are virtual, not physical. But the physical spaces of the 17th century and Enlightenment were just as much of a psychological earthquake—l’Académie française, l’Académie des sciences, the celebrated salons. That large groups of people were getting together to chat about literature, discovery, ideas, revolution, or simply to watch a show, was a change from the carefully manicured guest lists of the court, where the principal order of business was big-time sucking up.

These spaces evoked new questions: How does one conduct oneself? How does one appear to others? Managing your public profile became vital. The result? A new self-consciousness was born, and a new social nervousness. The players had the same questions we have today, says Saint-Jude: “How do you curate all this information?”

“Relax,” she says. “You’re in good company. There’s nothing new under the sun.”

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