Press as Facebook & Foursquare

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.

  • I agree.

    The most important part is not that we broadcast our location, but that we may take full advantage of the location we’re in.

    The only problem here, as the privacy zealots will point out, is the missuse of the technology.

    P.S. Just finish your first book, and it was amazing, so hurry up with the next.


  • Your text is in my head induced this thought: Well, to be accompanied by the classic “means” to know where these people are the moments that are in your society. ” Get out for a walk = see people on the street around him, and know where they are this moment, though unknown to us. If we see people in front of the theater, do not you wish yourself to go to the theater, as we hear on Twitter that someone is going to the theater. Neanderthals in caves and in the field are always seen each other know where that is a member at any time. Twitter is just a medium that supports the text, and text must create our virtual reality. And we humans create that reality is always in the same way – or have we seen each other so we know where the man on the street, restaurants, theaters, schools, firms, or write to where we are, if our text is the only tool. Being in the company, even if virtual, and not know the location is not a complete sense, is not it.

  • Jeff,

    I’m sure it’s in your new book, Public Parts, but maybe you can tease it. (and can I pre-order?)

    What is the definition of Public? When is there a reasonable assumption of privacy?

    When should I reasonably believe I am in a private environment? Are there levels of Privacy? If I’m at a “private party” with 12 other guests, and one of the twelve posts on Twitter, “OMG! I’m stuck at the LA Westin with that jerk Bradley Martin!” Has the poster of the comment violated my privacy? Or simply crossed an ethical boundary by announcing to the world my location? Or is that a matter of just poor etiquette?

    For that matter does ethics and/or etiquette play a role in our definition of Public!

    -Bradley Martin

    p.s. I can be a jerk sometimes, so that part of the Twitter example would not offend… and truth is the authors defense. :-)

    • huge questions, bradley. i do deal with them in the book but i’m still writing those sections.

    • I don’t think we’re experiencing many (or any?) more “private surroundings”. Even if I am at a party with my family, my cousin might decide to put a picture of me on Facebook. Can I get any more private than family? Except maybe taking pictures or videos of bed scenes, but that’s another story… The point is, we rather seem to choose who we want to be with in order to guarantee that nothing “unpleasant” is posted afterwards. If you go out with your buddies and you had a drink too much, you don’t need to worry that your boss finds it on the web, because your friends wouldn’t post that (maybe also, cause they were too drunk to take a picture :-D ).

      Although it may seem strange, we’re picking out our comrades in terms of our online profile, at least to a certain degree (That’s a stark overstatement, of course, but it makes my point most clear). If you don’t know someone “that well”, you won’t let him or her see your pictures and you won’t let that person link you to anything.

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  • Brian Wilson


    I’m in the early stages of some related research on democracy, types of media, and the Internet. Can’t find Rosen’s dissertation online, despite the best of Googling. Is it even online?

    Brian Wilson

    • Brian: It’s not online. You have to order it from:

      The information you need is:

      by ROSEN, JAY Ph.D., New York University, 1986, 491 pages; Cat. no: 8625653

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  • Jess

    “Why would you want to tell people where you are? We didn’t do that before.”

    Hahaha. Apparently some people haven’t ever heard anyone talking on a cell phone, ever, for the last twenty years.

    No matter where one goes, there is a constant dull roar: “I’m at the grocery now; do you need bottled water?” “I’m on a smoke break; because of my stupid boss I don’t get off until seven!” “I’m in line to get a latte! No, not that one: the one off 38th!” “I’m killing time at the bookstore; waiting on the kids to get out of practice!” etc. Actually, now I’m kind of jealous of those people who have missed out on popular trends in personal communication.

    • good one, jess.

      • George Mason

        Wait. Why is that a “good one, jess?” On the cellphone one is not (except for tracking technology) going public on where one is but rather is talking to a person of choice. Also, why the term (elsewhere above) “privacy zealots?” If someone prefers privacy, what are they doing to deserve being identified as, and implicitly chastised for, being a zealot? I read your first book and look forward to the next — but, especially, say, when regularly watching Whiner in Chief Leo and glancing over his chat room, I am convinced that many geeks (their term, not mine) have the psychological need to identify people as zealots or fan boys. Come on–am I a privacy zealot if I follow developments and choose to remove myself from Facebook and gmail or anything Google? I could be wrong but I am under the impression that there is a whole big life outside technology and the internet. Post script: Are people who throw darts while hiding behind anonymous names in chat rooms the real privacy zealots? Shame on me, of course, for thinking that.

        • You’re making a red herring. Who called you a privacy zealot? Why? The zealots are the ones who are zealots about it, who, in my opinion, go too far, consider only privacy (not publicness), reduce the public square. The lady who thinks that RFID tags are — and I mean this — the mark of the beast I’d call a zealot.

  • Oh, yes, we did.

  • A really worthwhile radio series to listen to in this context is the CBC’s Origins of the Modern Public – 14 parts – on iTunes. It examines the emergence of the idea of a public & of public opinion as a social force, 1500-1700. Fascinating in the context of what’s happening now with social media & activism across social, political & cultural spheres

  • It is a huge breach, and very dangerous, no question about it-