Social Media Before the Internet: Tales of Victorians, Comic Book Fans, Phone Phreaks and CBers

Although the current spate of social media platforms burst onto the scene within the last several years, these tools have antecedents in earlier, traditional media. Long before the rise of Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, people found innovative ways to use technology to interact. Kendall Whitehouse, Wharton’s director of new media, takes a look at how our desire to virtually connect with others is evident in media — from the telegraph and newspapers to comic books and radio.

Social media platforms have revolutionized the way we communicate. They have sparked democratic uprisings in the Middle East and fueled the recent IPO of a nearly $70 billion company. Although social media’s rise has been sudden — Facebook is a little more than eight years old and Twitter just six — it didn’t occur in a vacuum. Before Facebook and Twitter, before MySpace and Friendster, there were Usenet newsgroups, AOL chat rooms and online bulletin boards.

Yet the roots of social media go even deeper. Decades before the rise of the Internet, we can see evidence of the drive to shape both private communications and mass media into platforms for social connection. Several of these earlier instances — despite being based on very different technologies — share many of the characteristics of modern social media, such as using “handles” or aliases to represent identity, adopting “in crowd” lingo, and blurring the boundaries between private and public conversations.

Perusing the ‘Personals’

In The Victorian Internet, author Tom Standage recounts the tale — apparently gleaned from the 1849 publication Anecdotes of the Telegraph — of a marriage ceremony conducted over the telegraph. With the bride in Boston and the groom in New York, telegraph operators transmitted the couple’s vows and the words of the magistrate performing the ceremony over the wires. Thus, the world’s first electronic communications network was called into service to connect people in an intimate way.

Newspapers were the great mass medium throughout much of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. Yet, from at least the Victorian era on, people were using the medium for interpersonal communications. Well before Craigslist and Facebook, 19th century newspapers would run “personals” of lovelorn Victorians seeking to connect with a briefly-glanced stranger or to find a suitable partner for marriage. Like current social media messages, these notes — while often targeted to a specific individual — were public and available to anyone who perused the paper (although identities were often concealed by aliases).

During the period of the Second World War, comic books became the nexus of youthful entertainment. For many young people, reading comics was a lonely experience with little opportunity to connect with like-minded fans. Until, that is, 1961 when DC Comics editor Julius “Julie” Schwartz made a small change to the letters page of The Brave and the Bold #35: He included the full name and address of the readers whose letters were published. This seemingly minor change opened the floodgates of fandom. Comic book enthusiasts could now find each other, and a network of connections began to grow that spawned everything from a cottage industry of self-published fan magazines to the rise of comic book conventions.

In the early 1960s, DC rival Marvel Comics — always quick to jump on an emerging fad — began to print the names of members of their fan club, the Merry Marvel Marching Society. I remember scouring each issue for any listings in my hometown. After eventually spotting someone from my hometown, I looked up the name in the phone book and called him. Which titles did he read? Did he have anything to sell or trade? Through this technique — and after convincing my mother to drive me all the way across town to close the deal — I managed to score a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man #4 (featuring the first appearance of the Sandman).

‘The Wolfman Is Everywhere’

Marconi’s “wireless telegraphy” was originally intended to be exactly that: a wireless version of the telegraph for circumstances where wired infrastructure was infeasible, such as between ships at sea and the mainland. Very quickly, however, the technology evolved from telegraphy to voice transmission and was pressed into service for broadcasting news and entertainment. And thus radio was born.

Although radio, like newspapers, is principally a broadcast medium — transmitting a single stream of content to a mass audience — clever radio stations realized that people wanted to use the airwaves to connect with each other, and in the early rock ‘n’ roll era, many “top 40″ radio stations functioned as primitive social networks. Listeners could call their local station, request a song and give a dedication to that special someone for the disc jockey to announce on the air. George Lucas’s 1973 film American Graffiti captures the magic of the time when the local pop radio station was pervasive and served as the social glue for the young generation. “The Wolfman is everywhere,” the local disk jockey — who may or may not actually be the Wolfman himself — tells Curt (Richard Dreyfuss). Curt uses the airwaves to connect with the mysterious blonde in the T-Bird whom he has only seen in glimpses while cruising the streets of Modesto, Calif.

Like much social media today, a message delivered over the airwaves by the local DJ may be targeted to a particular individual, yet would be broadcast to a much larger audience. That was a part of the thrill — to share your personal sentiments with this larger group.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a group of hackers, known as “phone phreaks,” were obsessed with exploring the global telephone network. While much of their activity revolved around making free long-distance calls, they also discovered ways for multiple callers to talk simultaneously, creating conference-call like chat rooms for real-time group interaction through the telephone system.

Later into the 1970s, the Citizen’s Band radio craze turned the airwaves into a true peer-to-peer network. Originally popular among long-haul truckers, average Americans jumped on the CB bandwagon to eavesdrop on trucker chatter and converse with each other over the Citizen’s Band frequencies.

Much of the lingo of the CB universe has an analogue in today’s social media. Although the slang use of “handle” to refer to a person’s name, title or accolade dates to the 19th century, the use of the term as a reference to one’s on-air identity in CB jargon is a direct precursor of how the term is now used for online identity in Twitter.

Like modern social media, CB radio had its own argot, a set of shorthand abbreviations and slang that made communications more efficient and, perhaps more importantly, created a cultural signal that distinguished those “in the know” from interlopers — a trend that continues in modern text messages and tweets. CB radio’s “breaker, breaker” and “What’s your 20?” have been supplanted by “OMG” and “ROTFLOL.”

Across this entire media spectrum, we find the urge to shape these tools into instruments of interpersonal connection. While it was the web that made this vision fully realizable, the urge to connect virtually preceded the arrival of networked, digital technology by decades and continues to fuel the expansion of social media today.

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