Social Media: 18th Century & Today (Recap of Friends of Minuteman National Historical Park Talk, Winter Series)

This post is part of my ongoing Live with Abundance: Social Media for Good series

Over the weekend, I spoke on  “Social Media: 18th Century & Today,” as part of the Winter Lecture series, sponsored by the Friends of Minuteman National Historical Park, in Lexington MA. My topic was on how similar the 18th century New England tavern was to the role social media plays today, as a communications tool.

The New England Tavern as Liquid Network

In the presentation slides below, I describe the New England tavern as a liquid network, similar in purpose to the London coffeehouse, which in Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson credits as responsible for the dynamic environment and public exchange, which brought on the 17th century Enlightenment.

In the case of the 18th century New England tavern,  I describe how a very similar, liquid network fostered the ultimate American innovation–the birth of a new nation.

The New England Tavern, Storytelling, and the Public Sphere

I go on to discuss how the New England tavern strengthened what in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Clay Shirky calls  “the public sphere,” and was in this sense, similar in purpose to social media today.

I tie in how important the art of storytelling–known as conversation– has always been to engagement in the public sphere.

The Other Side of Social Media

I include examples of how social media fueled the recent Egyptian Revolution. I reflect on how the same tools that can be used for the common good, can just as effectively be used to oppress, mislead, and spy (see Alexander Howard’s Are the Internet and Social Media ‘Tools of Freedom’ or ‘Tools of Oppression?’ ).

I provide links from this blog, on how to stay safe online.

The Political Power of Social Media

Based on the role the New England tavern served in U.S. revolutionary times, I agree with Clay Shirky’s recent analysis,  “The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change.”

There, Shirky asserts that when it comes to political change, access to conversation is more important than access to information, and that the best way to advance democratic ideals is to long-term “secure the freedom of personal and social communication, closely followed by securing individual citizens’ ability to speak in public.”

Thanks to the Friends of Minuteman

Many thanks to the Friends of Minuteman for sponsoring the talk. The opportunity helped crystallize my thoughts on social media and reinforce for me, the many ways that social media is so much bigger than our individual interests.

Your Turn?

Importantly, the talk raises for me, more questions than answers–questions that ultimately we must continue to solve together, in the public sphere.

In the comments, I’d be very interested in your thoughts. What do you think about Alex Howard’s question, “Are the Internet and Social Media ‘Tools of Freedom’ or ‘Tools of Oppression?'” or Clay Shirky’s assertion that for political change, access to conversation is more important than access to information?

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