Fragile Publics

In cultural historian Joanne Freeman’s Affairs of Honor, she draws on a massive corpus of texts in order to flesh out the formal features of the information environment of political actors in the early republic. Of central interest to me is what she termed “the paper war”, but word-of-mouth gossip was a crucial component as well. The temptation to draw parallels to today is very strong, but I keep going back and forth on how persuaded I am by that exercise.

Let’s go through it nevertheless. The paper war had four chief tools: the letter, the pamphlet, the broadside, and the newspaper. In theory, these are ranked from the most private and therefore the medium with the most freedom to speak one’s mind (the letter) to the most public and therefore the medium that must be hedged for a broader audience (the newspaper). In practice, letters were far more public in nature than a modern reader is likely to realize, and often intentionally so. Letters often contained specific instructions to circulate them among an intimate circle of friends. Instructions aside, once sent, letters could end up in the hands of a postmaster loyal to the enemy party, or the receiver could use the letter to advance their own interests rather than the sender’s. But more on this aspect in a moment.

Pamphlets were often lengthy defenses of one’s character full of “documentation” (notes about specific events that had occurred usually, but possibly also signed statements from people willing to lend their credibility to it) intended to be circulated among a larger group than a letter but still among insiders, so to speak. This is the one that often gets paralleled to the modern blog, due to its middle point between the one-to-one and one-to-many positions on the private communication – broadcast spectrum.

Broadsides were posted in public places and so had broader reach in whatever locality they were put up in. Definitely a one-to-many model, very frequently anonymous and full of spitfire rhetoric one wouldn’t use in polite company.

Newspapers were the most public medium of all of course, with the potential to reach some of the widest audiences available at the time. One had to be very careful with ones words indeed, if one did not want to end up being challenged to a duel by whoever’s name was impugned. These could be anonymously written too, of course, but the strongest impact came from people willing to put their name to it (though of course this also required drawing back their rhetoric since it put them in the crosshairs).

Freeman says of newspapers:

Most wide-reaching of all was the newspaper. Printed in a single newspaper, an essay or news item easily migrated into others, forming a national bridge of communication beyond any one man’s control. By linking regions together with bonds of political consciousness, interconnected partisan newspapers were a nationalizing influence, a literal arm of government connecting the extended republic through chains of information.

As Adam Rust, who recommended this book to me, put it: perhaps the overtly partisan tone of today’s mainstream press (and the overall information sphere) is more of a return to type than a sign of cultural decline. So that is another parallel: the partisan press of the past and the partisan press of the present.

Now. Returning to the issue of letters whose lives were no more under the control of the sender once sent than an essay in a newspaper would have been. These days it is a commonplace that your emails may be leaked. But before that became a regular public phenomena, it was still trivially easy to forward an email to someone else – or to a mass list of people. Or to download it, or copy and paste the text. Once you’ve sent a message to someone, it’s in their hands, and they have all of the tools of the information sphere at their disposal to spread it (should they desire to).

We see this with the pamphlet/blog parallel as well. Pamphlets were meant to stay within the confines of a particular insider clique, but could be posted against the wishes of the author. Any of the hands that touched them could post them more widely, and like the modern blog they could go viral. Now, many blogs aspire to such an outcome – but many are quite comfortable writing for their little niche communities, their tiny online republics of equals. Even those who think they desire fame may not realize the price they – and their little community – might be forced to pay in loss of intimacy and candor that accompanies the arrival of large audiences.

The more I have thought about it, the more I think this is the connecting thread: the position of any of these tools (only “weapons” if one is fighting some war) is created by a combination of convention (that is, agreement) and circumstances (for example, the obscurity that is the default position of any one person or blog or social media account in the vast attention economy of the modern information sphere). More to the point, these positions are never assured in any one instance, precisely because people can buck convention and circumstances can change.

This does not make exercises like Freeman’s less worthwhile, and of course she’s careful to lay out exactly how conventions were bucked and circumstances did change. And even now, even as we have analyzed new media to death, I think a real Freeman-scale project to flesh out the various positions has not really been done (though my dad of course did a pretty bang up job with pieces of the information sphere in his book).

My point isn’t to criticize Freeman, whose book is a masterpiece and whose recent one I intend to read at some point. I’m just trying to scratch the itch I’ve had since reading it.

Writing this post has helped my crystallize what the practical insight is: when trying to understand dynamics in the information sphere, try to identify the current conventions (and the predictable ways they are violated) and the salient circumstances (and the various ways they can change). Even in the seeming flux of constant technological change, one can get the knack of it more or less, especially if you focus on relatively short timeframes.