TWITTER may define the Zeitgeist, but social media is not as new as it looks. Social-media ecosystems, in which information is passed horizontally from person to person along social connections, date back to Roman times. And more than two centuries before Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and the rest, another social-media environment arose in colonial America. It consisted of an interlinked network of local newspapers—and its animating figure was Benjamin Franklin.
The young Franklin got his start in the media business working for his older brother James, the editor of the New-England Courant, a Boston paper. Benjamin’s first foray into newspaper writing took the form of a series of 14 letters, written under the pseudonym of a widow named Silence Dogood, which he submitted to the New-England Courant’s office, and which were enthusiastically published by his unwitting brother. (The letters proved popular with readers, some of whom even wrote in to propose marriage.) James was furious when 16-year-old Benjamin admitted to having written the letters. This tale does not simply illustrate Benjamin’s ingenuity and writing prowess; it also shows how newspapers at the time were open to submissions from anyone, provided they expressed an interesting opinion. 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.
Benjamin Franklin went on to run a newspaper himself, launching the Pennsylvania Gazette in Philadelphia in 1729. A few years later he became Philadelphia’s postmaster, in part because control of the postal service “facilitated the correspondence that improved my newspaper”. He ran the system so efficiently that in 1753 he was made deputy postmaster general for the American colonies. In this role he increased the reliability and frequency of the postal service, reorganising routes and streamlining procedures. The number of deliveries from New York to Philadelphia went from one a week to three a week, and the postal service became profitable for the first time.
Just as important, Franklin allowed free exchange by post of newspapers both within and between colonies, formalising the reprinting of noteworthy reports and letters by papers in different towns. As the publisher and printer of the Pennsylvania Gazette, encouraging the circulation of news in these various ways was in Franklin’s own commercial interest. But it also contributed to the dynamism, vitality and unity of the American colonies’ emerging information ecosystem. It allowed significant letters and pamphlets to reach a wide audience as they were printed in one newspaper and then copied and reprinted by others. By the 1760s the colonial newspaper network had developed into a powerful, open and social platform for rehearsing arguments, propagating ideas and exchanging opinions.
As tensions grew with the government in Britain, many notable letters and pamphlets lit up this network, including John Dickinson’s anonymous “Letters from a Farmer”, which originally appeared in the Pennsylvania Chronicle and were then widely reprinted, and John Adams’s writings under the pen name “Novanglus”, which appeared in Boston newspapers in 1775, arguing with “Massachusettensis” (Daniel Leonard, a Loyalist lawyer who defended the British government’s position). But most successful of all was Thomas Paine, a recent immigrant to the colonies who in January 1776 articulated the case for independence more clearly and forcefully than anyone had done before. His pamphlet, “Common Sense”, quickly rippled through the colonies, shared at first among the political elite, who excitedly recommended it to each other, and then widely reprinted and excerpted in local papers. Unquestionably the most popular and influential pamphlet of the American Revolution, it eventually sold more than 250,000 copies and made Paine the world’s bestselling author.
The popularity of “Common Sense” revealed to the colonists the breadth of support for independence. Many years later, John Adams wrote disapprovingly to Thomas Jefferson that “history is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine.” That is an exaggeration, but not much of one. 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.
America’s contemporary enthusiasm for social media echoes the popularity of its original social-media platform, created by one of the Founding Fathers. Sorry, Facebook and Twitter—but Benjamin Franklin got there first.
Tom Standage is digital editor of The Economist and author of “Writing on the Wall: Social Media—The First 2,000 Years” (Bloomsbury). For more examples of historical precursors of modern social media, visit his blog.