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Historian Richard Brown recounts, in his important 1989 book, Knowledge is Power, how Americans of the early nineteenth century learned to take in the torrent of information that had been unleashed on them.

In the mid-eighteenth century, most Americans learned the news, be it about colonial wars, tragic shipwrecks, or new ideas about liberty, by word of mouth. Someone in the village received a personal letter or a newspaper that he would read to others in the town square. Or tavern habitués heard the “latest” from a traveler who had heard it in another tavern in another town. (See this earlier post: “18th-Century Twitterfeed.”)

Within a couple of generations, there were many more newspapers, a national postal system, lecture societies, mass public speech-making, traveling ministers sermonizing, lending libraries, novels, almanacs, and the like. This produced, Brown argued, the democratization of knowledge on the one hand, but also its privatization on the other. Individuals learned news on their own rather than in the company of others; it brought, wrote Brown, a certain loss of community.

A new, massive study by sociologist (and my Berkeley colleague) Heather Haveman provides a detailed account of one those new forms of media–the magazine. Her book, Magazines and the Making of America: Modernization, Community, and Print Culture, 1741-1860, tells how this innovative “social media” flourished and influenced American society two centuries ago. It also draws a different lesson about media and community.

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18th-Century Twitterfeed

One topic of our times is whether and to what effect we are being drowned by information – radio, television, email, web sites, blogs (like this one), twitter feeds, alerts on our cell phones, and more. Every event – an airplane disaster, a politician’s slip of the tongue, the breaking of a sports record – seems to be announced, debated, reinterpreted, overanalyzed, and old news between breakfast and morning coffee break. Too much, some people say; overload.

There was a time in our history when the information problem was the reverse: too little of it going around too slowly. It was a time when the nearest thing to a twitter feed or CNN Headline News was the local tavern – for those men who had access to one.
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