Brain Pickings

5 Vintage Versions of Modern Social Media from Centuries Ago

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From Voltaire’s status updates to Edison’s viral videos, or what Diderot has to do with data visualization.

We’ve previously made the case that everything builds on what came before, yet our human tendency is to inflate and overestimate the novelty of our ideas. Today, we turn to five concepts from the centuries of yore remarkably similar to the central premises of five of today’s social web darlings, in the hope of illustrating that, indeed, creativity is combinatorial and innovation incremental.

TWITTER

In November of 1906, artist, anarchist and literary entrepreneur Félix Fénéon wrote 1,220 succinct three-line reports in the Paris newspaper Le Matin, serving to inform of everything from notable deaths to petty theft to naval expedition disasters. He became the one-man Twitter of early-twentieth-century Paris. In Illustrated Three-Line Novels: Félix Fénéon, artist Joanna Neborsky captures the best of these enigmatic vignettes in stunning illustrations and collages. Sometimes profound, often perplexing, and always prepossessing, these visual snapshots of historical micro-narratives offer a bizarre and beautiful glimpse of a long-gone French era and a man of rare creative genius.

Catch our full review, with many more illustrated “tweets,” here.

FACEBOOK

Long before there was Facebook, there was the Republic of Letters — a vast and intricate network of intellectuals, linking the finest “philosophes” of the Enlightenment across national borders and language barriers. This self-defined community of writers, scholars, philosophers and other thinkers included greats like Voltaire, Leibniz, Rousseau, Linnaeus, Franklin, Newton, Diderot and many others we’ve come to see as linchpins of cultural history. Mapping the Republic of Letters is a fascinating project by a team of students and professors at Stanford, visualizing the famous intellectual correspondence of the Enlightenment, how they traveled, and how the network evolved over time.

More on the project in our original piece about it here. See also Dena Goodman’s excellent and somewhat controversial The Republic of Letters : A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment.

QUORA

Published in London between 1690 and 1697, The Athenian Mercury supplied answers to readers’ questions on love, literature, science, religion and a variety of utilitarian concerns and personal matters. The answers came from The Athenian Society, consisting of publisher John Dunton and three of his close friends.

The Athenian Oracle: Being an Entire Collection of All the Valuable Questions and Answers in the Old Athenian Mercuries is an exact reproduction of a book published in the early 1920s, culling the most fascinating and curious questions and answers from the gazette’s archive. You can also sample some of them on the Athenian Mercury Project online.

HT MetaFilter

YOUTUBE

If you thought drawing large audiences around silly cat videos is a phenomenon of the YouTube era, you’d be wrong. The man to whom we largely owe the very existence of YouTube — Thomas Edison, who invented the first motion picture camera and made film both a mass communication medium and a creative craft — also invented the cats-engaging-in-silly-acts viral meme…in 1894:

Edison was also no stranger to the selling power of some girl-on-girl action, as evidenced by this antique viral of boxing women:

These gems, along with others, were originally featured in our piece on Thomas Edison and the invention of movies.

TUMBLR

Thomas of Ireland authored the most famous florilegium of all time. Florilegia were compilations of excerpts from other writings, mashing up selected passages and connecting dots from existing texts to better illustrate a specific topic, doctrine or idea. The word comes from the Latin for “flower” and “gather.” The florilegium is one of the earliest recorded examples of remix culture — a Medieval textual Tumblr.

I spoke about the florligeium as a metaphor for networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity in my recent Creative Mornings talk on the subject.

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