(Not) A History of Social Media

Paul Starr’s The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications has been sitting unread on my bookcase for far too long. I’ve only just begun reading it, and, in spite of the rather plodding pace, I’m finding it immensely interesting.

I may write more about the book another time, but for now—though the book has made no mention of this particular sphere—it has me reflecting on the notion of social media. I am a light user of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites, and I recently had a conversation with friends over Chinese food about this newfangled idea that anyone cares what I’m doing right now or with whom.

Only later when I had on my more academic thinking cap, did it occur to me that I know very well that social media is by no means new.

A Google search on the history of social media will likely tell you that the phenomenon is at least 30 years old. Beth Hayden and Rafal Tomal trace is origins to the first email, sent by researchers at the Advanced Research Projects Agency in 1971, followed in 1980 by Usenet, which allowed people to post messages to online news feeds. The social media that we know today, many contend, is the latest step in an evolution that began with the birth of the internet.

Neat. Oh, but wait. What about all those newspapers I’ve been reading from the early 20th Century?

It matters, of course, how we define “social media.” Its current definition involves the internet and an ongoing exchange of user-generated information. But the way most of us use social media and the way people, including my recent dinner companions, think and talk about social media still has a lot to do with making public what we’re doing, where, and with whom.

The Society section has long been a staple of American newspapers, and many of its entries are easily as mundane as those now-ubiquitous Facebook posts about what’s for dinner.

The Newark Advocate (Newark, OH), 10 Apr 1912, p. 7

The Newark Advocate (Newark, OH), 10 Apr 1912, p. 7

As a family historian, I love the Society section. I’m like a kid at Christmas if I discover the person I’m researching lived in the coverage area of a newspaper that bothered to make note of parties and dinners and, in short, who was where doing what with whom. Avery Martin, from the clip above, was my maternal grandfather. In 1912, he was 18 years old. Given other details I know about his life, I can guess that this note appeared in the Society section because he’d been away attending college at Ohio State University and was home for a visit, something his friends and neighbors would certainly have liked to know.

These days, we don’t usually put that sort of thing in the newspaper: we put it online. But clearly, our obsession with the mundanities of others’ lives is nothing new, and as I work to add color to the sketches I make of my forebears’ lives, I am grateful for our long human history of nosiness.

The Newark Advocate (Newark, OH), 22 Nov 1911, p. 3

The Newark Advocate (Newark, OH), 22 Nov 1911, p. 3

Now if only I had an Instagram photo of what my grandmother, Helen Woodruff Martin, had for dinner.

2 Responses to (Not) A History of Social Media

  1. This is so true! I love reading old newspapers and have often thought how like Facebook & Twitter these “About Town” or similar sections are. :)

  2. historytype says:

    Thanks, AncestorQuest. I’m sure there are some small town newspapers that still do it to some degree, but there are so few of those left. I wonder what will happen in 100 years to all the mundane details of our lives we put online.

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