Social media not so new

Jan. 24, 2012, 1:00 a.m.
Social media not so new
(SERENITY NGUYEN/The Stanford Daily)

Although some may call social media unique to the 21st century, two researchers at Stanford say this predicament reveals nothing fundamentally new. In 17th and 18th century France, social media stirred up society and played as much of a role in individual lives as it does today.


“Social networks have been around as long as we have,” said Anaïs Saint-Jude, M.A. ’03, Ph.D. ’11, one of the researchers. A network need not be virtual, or even based on a means of communication, to bring together people who might not have otherwise known each other. Physical spaces like Masonic lodges, courts or theaters created social networks of their own.


Seventeenth-century Paris marked the beginning of modern-day media in many ways. According to Saint-Jude, the birth of journalism, literary critique and even the concepts behind blogs and tweets can be traced back to that age. Social elites hired individuals to follow and report on events. Billets, leaflets of paper cast anonymously into the street, inhabited the niche now filled by Twitter.


Seventeenth-century students also felt the weight of social media. Early modern universities revolved around tight-knit networks of student societies and served as hubs of publication.


“You could still get in trouble for ‘posting’ something,” said associate professor of French and Italian Dan Edelstein, the other main researcher.


For example, a student might be expelled for association with an atheistic publication.


Comparative literature professor Hans Gumbrecht, Saint-Jude’s Ph.D. advisor, highlighted a particular way in which social media has evolved.


“While I agree with the basic take that the subjective feeling of informational overload was not so different, what’s more interesting is the feeling of acceleration today,” he said.


An email today might receive a response in minutes whereas a letter would certainly require days.


With electronic media, “you get the most current developments instantaneously, which affects how you go about your day,” said Cody Behan ’15, a student in the class Media, Culture and Society.


Publications and pamphlets could have the same effect over time, but would have to be passed from person to person, while media today enjoy simultaneous viewership on a one-to-many scale.


Both Edelstein and Saint-Jude recognize that innovation creates new phenomena and that the social media of today have unique features that create particular challenges that would not have existed in the early modern period.


“Certainly the scale has changed…the volume has changed,” Saint-Jude said.


She thought of these changes as an effect of the shift from physical to virtual spaces, which increase scale and speed and allow people to explore their identities in new ways. While these advances make transmission easier and more efficient, she said, they also create problems of their own.


Edelstein agreed.


“Back then, you wouldn’t get the accidental posts where you forget you’re friends with your boss,” he said.


The deliberateness of physical forms of media made people more thoughtful about what they chose to say in published form. Saint-Jude argued the media might have also differed due to differing societal focuses: in the 17th century, people knew they were being watched, and therefore lived up to societal ideals when using social media. Saint-Jude advised social media users today to think back to those of the 17th century and understand the roles they play in the public sphere.


“Think about your persona,” Saint-Jude said. “No one’s checking, but consequences still exist in terms of people’s perception of you.”

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