My mother recently retired from her job as a catalogue librarian for the University of Oregon and relocated to a 70-acre grass-seed farm in nearby Linn County, Oregon — the “Grass Seed Capital of the World.” The farm has been in our family since my great-grandfather purchased it in the early 1900s after immigrating to the U.S. from Czechoslovakia. Although someone else handles the grass-seed harvests, my mother keeps up with the house and the windmill, runs a small but productive garden and raises chickens with names like Stew and Chicken Dinner.
My mother has always been a voracious Facebook user and being at the farm has only intensified that. Every day she produces two or three essay-length posts with updates on how the potatoes are coming in or tips for keeping a beehive dry during the damp Pacific Northwest winters or reviews of the movies she gets from Netflix. (She may be one of the last people still using the DVD delivery feature.) I have often tried to refocus her energies into a blog, but she’s content with filling my timeline with paragraph after paragraph about chicken feed.
While visiting her recently, I stopped by the Harrisburg Oregon Historical Society, a museum of local antiquities run by a dedicated collection of volunteers who wouldn’t take “Don’t you mean Harrisburg, Pennsylvania?” lying down. The museum is mostly a collection of vintage farming equipment, but I was drawn to the smaller treasures: old brooches and pins, flatware, tins for food that would not pass FDA inspection today.
One of the many things stored in the Harrisburg Oregon Historical Society is a collection of local newspapers dating back to the 1800s. In the community section of the papers is a column of social announcements:
“John and Jane Smith will travel to Eugene on Sunday to visit their daughter Clara. They will stay overnight with her, her husband and their three children.”
“Stevie Johnson will have a party for his 10th birthday this weekend. Twelve children will be in attendance, and they will enjoy a performance from a magician and a chocolate cake.”
“The Young Ladies Auxiliary will have a luncheon to introduce new members on Saturday. There will be a speech from President Jeanette Tulane and a musical performance to follow.”
Each edition of the paper contained dozens of these announcements, every one more mundane and unimportant than the last. It seemed to me that these were nothing more than Facebook updates. The only purpose they served was to keep a community of people — in this case whoever had access to the newspaper — updated about what was going on in someone else’s life. We often talk about social media as some sort of new invention of the technological age, but here was the evidence that it has existed for much longer.
When I brought this up to my mother, she remembered summers in college when she would go to her grandparent’s farm in Iowa to work. “Whenever I would come, my grandmother would take out an announcement in the paper,” she explained. “And she would get phone calls from her friends, ‘Oh, I saw in the paper that your granddaughter is in town, how nice,’ or they would invite us over for dinner or stop by themselves for coffee.”
This system makes sense for my great-grandparents, who were rural farmers without the time, money or energy to call or visit everyone whom they wanted to share information with. Especially in rural communities, it would be an invaluable service to open your newspaper each morning and receive updates on the people in your community — something we now do every time we scroll through our Facebook timelines.
On the opposite end of the spectrum were the society pages. The lives of the rich and famous were splashed across these columns. Lavish parties and vacations were reported on like they were an insurgence into enemy territory, gossip and rumors like they were whispers from Capitol Hill. Nowadays you can still find similar reportage in some newspapers, but more often people fulfill these baser pleasures by trolling Kim Kardashian’s Instagram or Twitter account.
With both the social columns and society pages, anyone who could afford the nominal price of a newspaper (or find one for free) had the ability to access an enormous network of information about the people in their communities from all walks of life. We take this for granted now and roll our eyes when our parents or aunts or people-we-went-to-college-with-but-weren’t-really-that-close to post the banal trappings of their daily life on social media. We bemoan the loss of “personal interaction” that our elders allegedly enjoyed via a constant stream of phone calls and visits and meetings, but when you really think about it, that idea is a fantasy. People could not have had the time to keep up with everyone they knew through personal interaction. My great-grandparents on both sides of my family spent their lives toiling away on desolate farms in the middle of god-forsaken nowhere; there was maybe time for a handful of phone calls and maybe a few visits a week, and the rest needed to be streamlined.
Just as people have always needed a way to have access to personal networks, they have also needed access to other information. The core ideas behind what we now call “hashtag activism” are rooted in systems that far pre-date Twitter. Think of Martin Luther as he hammered his incendiary Ninety-Five Theses to the doors of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg or Mary Wollstonecraft in the 1700s printing copies of her A Vindication of the Rights of Women to be passed out on the street or the man my mother told me about who would post satirical cartoons on street lamps and bulletin boards around Eugene in the ‘70s lambasting local figures: Their ideas were too radical for newspapers, journals or presses. Instead, these authors utilized a social network of sorts to self-publish and distribute their ideas — the same way your friend self-publishes his treatises on cultural appropriation using Facebook as his medium.
When looking at the connections between the old tools of social media and the new ones we have today, the consistent through-line is privilege and commodity: The reason we have always needed social media is for people without great privilege to dispense and receive information that is not a commodity. But even these methods require some amount of privilege to access: You must have the nominal fee to purchase or take an ad out in a newspaper or have access to the internet or, most importantly, be privileged enough to be literate.
But there is, of course, perhaps the oldest method of social media that exists completely devoid of privilege and commodity, one that can be utilized by anyone of any education and socio-economic level: gossip. There are plenty of downsides to gossip, most notably that it generally lacks accuracy and is often used maliciously, but for thousands of years, it has been used to pass information among large networks of people regardless of education or class. This is one reason the center of many pre-modern cities were public spaces; the Greek agora, the plazas in colonial Spanish cities and Italian piazzas are just three examples.
Looking at my mother’s Facebook page, I see all of these ideas realized. She has been empowered by this platform to share what she knows with people in her community whom she might not have the opportunity to communicate with directly on a regular basis. Even though she is doing this today on a website full of Candy Crush advertisements, it is not much different than the networks utilized by peasants sharing information about what is happening in their fiefdom by spreading gossip in the streets, or Margaret Sanger sharing with women how to use birth control by printing pamphlets and passing them out, or my great-grandmother taking out an ad in the local paper announcing a relative’s visit.
My mother’s updates on her chickens, or your mother’s recipe for a Spongebob Squarepant’s birthday cake, or our collective uncle’s rants about Obamacare might not be changing the world at large, but the fact that we can see them, roll our eyes and maybe sympathy “like” them means that we are still utilizing that same system. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the rest are not radical ideas; they are the newest in a long line of tools to help people tap into an ancient resource.
Robert Balkovich is an Oregonian-cum-New Yorker currently living in Brooklyn. He is not from Portland. His writing has appeared in/on 7 Stops Magazine, Park Slope Reader, The State Column, Ubiquitous and TravelSquire.com. Besides writing, he enjoys anthropology and ethnography books from the 1970s, and clay face masks. He is really trying his best at Twitter, so please follow him: @RobertBalkovich
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