As research for Public Parts, I’ve been reading Jay Rosen’s doctoral dissertation about the creation of publics and the press. As in other research, I’m finding so many wonderful parallels between the changes in society caused by technology today and that which came earlier. Jay writes that “in 1784 William Bradford, a Philadelphia printer and the proprietor of the Merchants’ Coffee-House, announced that his establishment would provide a new service”:
To prevent the many disappointments that daily happen to returned citizens, or others, enquiriing for friends, connections, or those that tehy may have business with; the subscriber has opened a book, as A City Register, alphabetically arranged, at the bar of the Coffee-house, where any gentleman now resident in the City, either as a housekeeper or a lodger, or those who may hereafter arrive may insert their names and place of residence.
Jay says Bradford “was offering a form of news — word of who was in town and where they could be reached…. The need for a written register arises when there are too many connections, too many strangers, too many arrivals and departures for the community to maintain through speech and memory a record of its inhabitants.”
What does that describe? Facebook, of course, and Foursquare next.
I was among those who scoffed when Mark Zuckerberg dubbed his algorithmic aggregation of personal updates a “news feed.” I was wrong. It’s news just as Mr. Bradford’s bar-top register was. Others scoff at the idea of Foursquare: “Why would you want to tell people where you are? We didn’t do that before.” Oh, yes, we did.