Megan Garber perceives early elements of social media in a 130-year old Kentucky gossip column, “Scintillations,” which contained everything from status updates to inside jokes:
Yep, in other words: “Scintillations” was a Facebook news feed, from 1883. Basically.
And what becomes pretty clear from a read of the Scintillations is why an editor and/or a printer in Millersburg, Kentucky in 1883 took the trouble to gather those items, format them to fit within a column, and lay them out for printing, on a semi-weekly basis. The Scintillations are exactly what they claim to be: really, really good conversation fodder. You can imagine a group of Millersburg residents, gathered around a fire or a dinner table, reading about themselves and their neighbors, marveling at Senator Beck’s wealth and discussing the merits of whale milk.
We tend to think of newspapers’ work today as the end point of stories: the reporter learns and learns and learns all she can about a given subject, and when she’s gathered all she can within the time she has, she writes her take, offering it up as the first rough draft of history. She attempts to take the data swirling around in the world and organize it into the sense-making structure of the story. Which will be the final word on that subject until the next story is written. The “Scintillations” did the opposite, though: instead of attempting to bring order to a chaotic world, they reveled in the world’s chaos. They purposely stripped away context. They did, in other words, what Facebook does — and what Twitter and Instagram and similar social networks do — today: they reflected the world as it was, messy and funny and leaving you wanting more. Instead of telling stories, they gave their readers ingredients to tell their own.
More Dish on 19th century harbingers of social media here.