The social media of the pamphleteers

Printing press

I’ve always had a soft spot for pamphleteers. No not the annoying leafleteers in London today, promoting gym membership or fast food. I’m referring to those people who wrote using the social media platform known as the pamphlet. This form of social media was prevalent in England between the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the 19th century. The reign of Charles II apparently tried to suppress them. But pamphlets dominated England’s political discourse during the Glorious Revolution.

A “Pamphlet War” took place – a sort of upmarket Twitter spat – after Edmund Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France, which supported the French aristocracy. As Wikipedia puts it: “Because he had supported the American colonists in their rebellion against England, his views sent a shockwave through the country.

“Many writers responded, defending the revolution in France, among them Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Alfred Cobban calls the debate that erupted ‘perhaps the last real discussion of the fundamentals of politics’ in Britain.”

In pamphlet debates, there was plenty of stone throwing, just as there is on digital social media. “Many pamphlets were written in response to other pamphlets, bearing such titles as: A Witty Answer, or A vindication to a foolish Pamphlet”, says Amanda Griscom, who has written about the history of communication. “The interactivity that emerged among pamphleteers resembles on a small scale the interactive, hypertextual network of voices that accounts in large part for the prosperity of the net.”

According to a chapter on 17th Century opinion by Timothy Harris: “It is well known that from the eve of the Civil War there was a sudden and dramatic surge in the output of the press. As censorship controls broke down following the meeting of the Long Parliament in late 1640, there was a great explosion of pamphlet and other printed materials, discussing a wide range of political, constitutional, and religious topics, and it is probably not too controversial to assert that the English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century was accompanied by a concomitant media revolution.”

So why did this form of social media disappear as a significant form of communication? Well, according to Pamphlets and Pamphleteering in Early Modern Britain by Joad Raymond: “The prominence of the pamphlet as an idea – a means of speaking, an arena for thought, a space for reading – would decline. In the middle of the eighteenth century the novel would become, at least among a certain class, a consummate figure of the printed book, leading to a world away from the real of politics and polemic, on which engaged with society through narrative rather than vocalisation… Elite and popular culture gradually parted ways.”

In other words, the social media gurus who say that we only read mass media because it wasn’t possible to have anything else are wrong. Social media had been immensely popular, but the mass media out-competed the social media world by being more interesting. Novels were more fun, while newspapers provided news brands that ensured readers knew what they were getting.

Perhaps that’s why the global audiences of Mail Online, the BBC and plenty of others continue to grow.

There is a danger for all social media that they just become boring. Comments on popular blogs are routinely unreadable – full of bile, misogyny, homophobia and other forms of hatred. The writing of blogs (a much-underused tool by the PR industry) has been in decline, as amateur writers find out how hard it is to write good copy that keeps readers engaged. It turns out that no one cares what someone’s cat ate for breakfast. And, of course, the mass media now produces many of the most popular blogs. Meanwhile, there is evidence that interest in Facebook has been loosing millions of users in its most popular markets.

This is not to say that social media is disappearing. It isn’t. But the idea that it eliminates the desirability of mass media neither corresponds with the history of social media nor the phenomenal viewer and readership growth figures that the best of the mass media are enjoying.