Posts Tagged ‘Anaïs Saint-Jude’

Hot new social media maybe not so new: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011
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10 to 15 letters a day … and he still looks happy.

Remember a few days ago we promised that we’d have a lot more to say about the links between our hotshot social media and the information explosions that rocked previous centuries?

Well, here goes, my article earlier today:

If you feel overwhelmed by social media, you’re hardly the first. An avalanche of new forms of communication similarly challenged Europeans of the 17th and 18th centuries.

“In the 17th century, conversation exploded,” said Anaïs Saint-Jude, director of Stanford’s BiblioTech program. “It was an early modern version of information overload.”

The Copernican Revolution, the invention of the printing press, the exploration of the New World – all needed to be digested over time. There was a lot of catching-up to do. “It was a dynamic, troubling, messy period,” she said.

Public postal systems became the equivalent of Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and smartphones. Letters crisscrossed Paris by the thousands daily. Voltaire was writing 10 to 15 letters a day. Dramatist Jean Racine complained that he couldn’t keep up with the aggressive letter writing. His inbox was full, so to speak.

Stanford’s Mapping the Republic of Letters project, which forms part of the context for Saint-Jude’s remarks, shows that 40 percent of Voltaire’s letters were sent to correspondents relatively close by.

What was everyone saying? Not necessarily much. Rather like today’s email. “It was the equivalent of a phone call, inviting someone to tea or saying, ‘OMG, did you know about the Duke?'” said Dan Edelstein, an associate professor of French and the principal investigator for the project. He will be teaching a course in the spring called Social Animals, Social Revolutions and Social Networks.

Clearly, something had changed: Commercial postal services were on the rise. Though their prototypes had existed down through the centuries, they had mostly served government officials, and later (via the Medicis, for example) merchant and banking houses. Suddenly they were carrying private correspondence.

More people were writing, and more people could respond quickly, not only with friends and family, but across far-flung distances with people they had never met, and never would. Rather like some of our Facebook friends.

According to Saint-Jude, it was an era, like ours, of “hyper-writing,” even addictive writing. The aristocratic Madame de Sévigné wrote 1,120 letters to her married daughter in Brittany, beginning in the late 1670s, until her death in 1696. It was important to keep her kid up to date with the goings-on in Paris. Although she is remembered today for her witty epistles, she never intended them to be saved, let alone published.

For a time, the streets of Paris were littered with little bits of papers – les billets – filled with a few words of scabrous and politically defamatory verse that were thrown to the public. Sound like Twitter?

The little bits of paper in your pocket could cause big trouble – Voltaire landed in jail for his verse. Nonetheless, these short, anonymous postings bypassed the government censor. It was also a way of organizing uprisings. Edelstein points out that Egyptian social networks were critical to coordinating demonstrators and drawing large crowds this year.

Indeed, he noted that social networks are key to almost all revolutions. “The Egyptian youth organizers may have excelled at mobilizing people at a moment’s notice, but interestingly it’s another kind of social network that seems to be taking advantage of the post-revolutionary situation – the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said.

“This network may be less agile, but it has created longer and better sustained bonds between members over time.” Unlike Facebook networks that almost anyone can join, the Brotherhood echoed the older, more exclusive networks that vetted prospective members, such as France’s Jacobin clubs. “Flash mobs quickly splinter into cacophony,” Edelstein told an assembly of incoming freshmen last month.

What is public? What is private? More correspondence meant that letters could fall into the wrong hands. Laclos‘ epistolary novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, showed the dangers and disgrace that could befall the writers of wayward correspondence. In our own era, need we mention the fate that befell the indiscreet Rep. Anthony Weiner?

Meanwhile, modern journalism was born, via a precursor of the blog. Nobles, such as Cardinal Mazarin, hired their own “journalists” to report on scandal and sex in the city. These writers set up bureaus around Paris to get the juiciest news, and it was written and copied and distributed to subscribers. Literary reviews and newspapers soon blossomed, along with letters to the editor and a new environment of literary and cultural criticism.

These new networks flexed a new kind of media punch. For example, Edelstein noted that across the ocean in America, the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 2. The news was published in a newspaper on the legendary 4th. “What we’re really celebrating is not the fact that 56 men signed the declaration, but rather that a new network of people emerged around the published declaration – a network that would ultimately become the United States,” he said.

The poster was invented to invite more and more people to more and more public events – theater, for example, became the dominant art form in the 17th century. Posters mobilized these slow-motion “flash mobs.”

The new spaces we have created are virtual, not physical. But the physical spaces of the 17th century and Enlightenment were just as much of a psychological earthquake – l’Académie française, l’Académie des sciences, the celebrated salons. That large groups of people were getting together to chat about literature, discovery, ideas, revolution, or simply to watch a show, was a change from the carefully manicured guest lists of the court, where the principal order of business was big-time sucking up.

These spaces evoked new questions: How does one conduct oneself? How does one appear to others? Managing your public profile became vital. The result? A new self-consciousness was born, and a new social nervousness. The players had the same questions we have today, said Saint-Jude: “How do you curate all this information?”

“Relax,” said Saint-Jude. “You’re in good company. There’s nothing new under the sun.”

Or, “Ce qui fut sera, Ce qui s’est fait se refera, Et il n’y a rien de nouveau sous le soleil.

Postscript: Hey! We got some pick-up in the New Yorker here.

 

Was the blogosphere born in the French Enlightenment?

Friday, October 28th, 2011
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My friend, Anaïs Saint-Jude, sent me the link for this short piece, which brings the noble trade of blogging into disrepute.

Robert Darnton compares today’s blogging with what he considers an early-modern precursor, the “nouvelliste“:  “Gossip mongers who worked oral circuits of communication were known as ‘nouvellistes de bouche.’ When they reduced news to written anecdotes and strung the anecdotes together in manuscript “gazetins”, they graduated into the ranks of ‘nouvellistes à la main.”’

A couple samples of the genre:

The prince de Conti was knocked out of commission by a girl known as the Little F…..He blames it on Guerin, his medical advisor.

The duc de … surprised his wife in the arms of his son’s tutor. She said to him with an impudence worthy of a courtier, “Why weren’t you there, Monsieur? When I don’t have my esquire, I take the arm of my lackey.”

Well, of course I’d argue that not all blogging is of the scalding political kind, and not all of us are boiling scurrility and celebrity into one nasty soup.  Some of us politely exchange views about Tolstoy or Stendhal over our Limoges teacups.

Still, it’s reassuring that the much-ballyhooed breakdown of civility did not begin last year, despite the sanctimonious pronouncements of politicians.

The aptly named Amanda French, commenting on Darnton’s article, did her own research on the salon and journal culture of early 19th-century Paris – a bit later than the nouvellistes, admittedly – and was struck by this comment from the noted saloniste Delphine de Girardin, which she translates for us:

Finally, they say, “It’s hard to make a name for yourself in Paris.” Lie! Nothing is easier today. Published every morning, printed every week are a hundred enemy journals and twenty rival reviews that do nothing but talk, and which esteem themselves only too happy when you want to furnish them with some amusing pages for nothing, giving them the chance to say something a little malicious about their enemy while you show off. Nothing is easier for a young man of talent than to make a name in the journals. Ask rather about these old journalists without talent who are so celebrated.

“Boy, did that remind me of the blogosphere,” she writes.

But Darnton implies that these pre-bloggers were more than lazy gossip mongers. They may have lit the match that sparked the revolution:

“The anecdotes constituted the early-modern equivalent of a blogosphere, one laced with explosives; for on the eve of the Revolution, French readers were consuming as much smut about the private lives of the great as they were reading treatises about the abuse of power. In fact, the anecdotes and the political discourse reinforced each other. I would therefore argue that the early-modern blog played an important part in the collapse of the Old Regime and in the politics of the French Revolution. …

“I don’t believe that history teaches lessons, at least not in a direct, easily applied manner, but it does raise questions. Are blogs disrupting traditional politics today just as ‘libelles‘ did in eighteenth-century France?”

Over our teacups, we might point out – delicately of course – that Darnton himself is writing on a blog, denouncing the art of the blog from the blogosphere.  In fact, he himself realizes the irony as he pens his piece on the New York Review of Books blog.

Read more in his book,  The Devil in the Holy Water, or the Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon.

And we’ll have more to say on this topic at the Book Haven in a few days.

Postscript on 10/30:  Dave Lull sent me this link from 2Blowhards on the coffeehouse culture: “I’m not the first observer of the web and of blogdom to be reminded of the 17th and 18th century coffee-house. ‘It’s open! And everyone is having a say!’ – the parallels between now and then are striking. Even so, I haven’t yet run across a brief blog-intro to coffee-house culture. What was this coffee-house phenomenon about anyway?”  Check it out.