The Washington Times-Herald

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November 5, 2013

5 historical pioneers of social media: Martin Luther invented the listicle

(Continued)

LONDON — During the 18th century, the American colonies established an increasingly efficient media-sharing system. Local newspapers, with a circulation of a few hundred at best, did not rely on journalists for stories, but instead reprinted letters, speeches and pamphlets supplied by their readers, and thus provided a shared, social platform through which people could share and discuss their views with others. (Think of it as Gawker or SBNation.) As the reliability and frequency of the postal service improved, it allowed free exchange by post of newspapers both within and between colonies. This allowed noteworthy letters and pamphlets to reach a wide audience as they were printed in one newspaper and then copied and reprinted by others.

As tensions grew with the government in London, several authors wrote letters or pamphlets that lit up this colonial media network, including John Dickinson's anonymous "Letters from a Farmer" and John Adams' writings under the pen name "Novanglus." But most successful of all at exploiting this network was Thomas Paine, a recent immigrant to the colonies who articulated the case for independence more clearly and forcefully than anyone had done before. His pamphlet "Common Sense" quickly rippled through the colonies, shared at first among the political elite, who excitedly recommended it to each other, and then widely reprinted and excerpted in local papers. It was unquestionably the most popular and influential pamphlet of the American Revolution, eventually selling more than 250,000 copies and making Paine the world's bestselling author. In another example of synchronization of opinion, its popularity revealed to the colonists the breadth of support for independence. Many years later, John Adams wrote disapprovingly to Thomas Jefferson that "history is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine." That is an exaggeration, but not much of one.

               

5. Jean-Frederic Pheypeaux

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