A Blog of Their Own – Blogs as Cultural History

This entry original appeared on my Live Journal blog, 3/17/2011 posted at 7:56 PM.  It has not been updated or corrected, except for minor typo corrections.

A Blog of Their Own – Blogs as Cultural History

What is cultural history?  Sometimes dismissed as “women’s history” — cultural history is the history of ordinary people.  People who aren’t presidents, kings or queens, or even the lord and ladies of the highest levels of society.  Yet, it often isn’t the lowest levels of society either – because even with the invention of the printing press, and the implementation of widespread public (or free) education — to be poor meant to be illiterate and to be illiterate meant to be poor.  In other worlds, when it comes to documenting the past — the poorest of the poor still slipped through the cracks.

However, in the 1800s and early 1900s letter-writing and the keeping of journals and diaries were quite common.  So much so that often even the literature of the period was sometimes written as letters, journals, or memoirs.  And cultural historians of today look to the letters of the past to understand the normal people — not just women but anyone who was, at the time, just average.

While watching the extra features for Sherlock I found one of the producers (I don’t remember if it was Gatiss or Moffat, sorry) when talking about updating Sherlock Holmes made this curious statement:  “Dr. Watson wouldn’t keep a journal or write memoirs – he’d keep a Blog”.  Which got me thinking:  Blogs and all social media (and user-generated content) are the social history of today.  Or, at least for the historians of the future, you’d think.

This is an important development.  In the 1980s and 1990s letter-writing virtually disappeared as phone calls replaced letters.  Not that the telephone didn’t exist before then, but long distance calls were expensive, and international calls unreliable and extremely expensive – and the time on the line might even be limited by outside forces.  As e-mail also came on the scene in the late 80s and 90s – it replaced letters as well, but was ephemeral – e-mail was often read and deleted.  It wasn’t going to be around for years.  Cloud computing (web services like Gmail) have increased the length e-mail sticks around but probably not to archive status.

However, now, blogs, Facebook and Twitter entries, etc, are allowing normal, average people the power to not only air their opinions and interests in a public forum, open to debate with often like-minded individuals, but hopefully to be kept for future historians to look at to understand the normal people of today.

And even in contemporary times – social media is becoming a force for breaking news.  During the recent unrest in Egypt (2011) — one of the first things the government did was block social media sites like Facebook and Twitter – to prevent the unedited broadcasting of information by individuals.  And Twitter published a hack to get around the foreign government censorship.  (I personally saw the Twitter Hack post – I was impressed).

When the earthquake hit in Japan, at first services were down — but soon pictures were being sent, literally around the world, by smart phone.  BBC News even had a story covering the content being generated by normal, everyday, average people in Japan – calling the Earthquake the first “viral” disaster – and pointing out how “for the first time” a natural disaster was being covered in real time, instead of in pictures later.

And, I actually still remember being on one of the Doctor Who forums when news of the London underground bombings hit.  (No, I don’t remember which bombings, unfortunately, that is to say – what year.  I know the blame on the board started with the civil service (It was thought to be a “normal” blackout at first), then the IRA, then terrorists, before the news finally figured out it was quite the literally the “lone nut with a bomb”.)  But I do remember finding it weird that I was finding out about this stuff going on in London, via a Doctor Who posting board.  I also remember having an argument with a friend afterwords when I tried to point out all the theories I’d heard.

So, anyway — getting back to the point.  Blogs – journals of today, possibly the cultural artifacts of the future.