Letters, the First Social Media

Researchers at Stanford have undertaken a cool letter-focused project (well, it’s cool to history nerds like myself).  They have mapped the comings and goings of letter-based conversations among early modern intellectuals by gathering extant letters sent between 1600 and 1825.  The researchers have turned these letters into data points (from where/whom, to where/whom, when, and about what).  This project catalogs letters of people like John Locke, who wrote 15,000 letters during his life!

Historians have long used letters to supplement their study of intellectuals’ official works because letters illuminate the development process of these ideas and show who was in on the conversations. The Stanford datatbase and accompanying visualizing tool now give a geographic shape to what has long been called “The Republic of Letters.”  Extending beyond nations, religions and regions, the Republic of Letters connected thinkers and provided a community of support and critique of theories and new concepts.  Through letters, folks like Locke or Voltaire could essentially “like” someone’s post, or “repost” it themselves, just like on Facebook.  Though it took a bit longer and I daresay the level of discourse was more, um, enlightened!

Here’s an article on the project and here‘s the project site itself.  The brief video is very cool and the tool that lets you visualize the flow of letters is particularly interesting. On the tool, click on “flow” in the upper right hand corner and watch those letters move across Europe!

Hat tip to 365 Letters for showing the way to this project.