Friday, January 25, 2013

Social Networking

by Sheila Connolly

We're all very connected electronically these days, almost to the point of obsession.  Well, at least a lot of us are.  My sister hasn't quite caught the bug, but at least she has a new computer now, and I keep promising her that she'll hear from me a lot more often by email than she ever has by phone.

But we writers are online all the time—not only emails, but blogs (see, you're looking at one), loops, lists, Facebook, Twitter, and more.  Walk down any street anywhere these days and you find half the people staring at their cell phone, texting someone.  As a dinosaur, I keep wondering what is so important that it can't wait a few minutes, but apparently I'm in the minority.

But all this has started me thinking about how people did it in the Olden Days.  You know, pre-electricity.  Pre-post office.  How did people communicate?

As I may have mentioned, I've done a lot of genealogy over the past couple of decades, so I can point to a couple of noteworthy examples.

Take, for instance, an event that most Americans are probably familiar with:  the battle of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, that served as a catalyst for the Revolutionary War.  I've spent a lot of time in the area, and I know where those towns lie in relation to Boston, where the Redcoats began their march, and also their relation to the Massachusetts towns that mustered their militias to head for the battle. 

We've all heard of Paul Revere's ride, triggered by the signal in the tower of the Old North Church, as described by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  You know, "one if by land, and two if by sea"?  When Revere saw the signal, he rowed across the Charles River, and, according to Longfellow, reached Medford at midnight, Lexington by one, and Concord by two. The distance between Medford and Lexington is maybe nine miles, between Lexington and Concord, another seven.  The redcoats arrived at Lexington at sunrise. The word spread surprisingly fast: the alarm went out late on April 18th (Patriots' Day, a Massachusetts state holiday), and the colonial militias were in place, armed and ready to fight, on the morning of the 19th.

It was a network that accomplished this: as Revere rode along, avoiding British patrols, he alerted other riders who fanned out to tell other towns. Longfellow kind of skips over the part where Revere and his colleagues William Dawes and Samuel Prescott were stopped by one of those patrols in Lincoln, on the way to Concord—and took Revere's horse, so he walked back to Lexington. But in any case, my point is that there was a system in place for spreading the word, and it worked.  Who needs Twitter?

I can cite another case of early communications from one of my ancestors:  Phineas Pratt, who arrived in the colonies in 1622 and settled in Wessagusset (now Weymouth, Massachusetts).  Phineas is perhaps best known for his account of rescuing the Plymouth Colony from an Indian attack—which he wrote himself (which might account for a few of the heroic details).  The document survives and was summarized by William Bradford (Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647, published by Samuel Eliot Morrison in 1952).

According to Bradford, "In ye meane time, came one of them [that would be Phineas] from ye Massachucts with a small pack at his back, and though he knew not a foot of ye way yet he got safe hither, but lost his way, which was well for him for he was pursued, and so was mist. He could them hear, how all things stood amongst them, and that he durst stay no longer, he apprehended they would be all knokt in ye head shortly."

In other words, Phineas overheard some Indians plotting against the Plymouth settlement, and set out to warn them.  He left about three o'clock in the afternoon, running through unfamiliar woods, in the snow, chased by wolves.  He stopped after dark and built a fire, then resumed the next morning and arrived in Plymouth in time to warn the settlers there (who immediately headed north to attack the Indians at Wessagussett).  Distance between modern day Weymouth and Plymouth? About 30 miles. He may not have taken the most direct route:  as Bradford points out, Phineas got lost along the way, which is why the Indians didn't stop him.

The Plymouth Colony survived because one man overheard something and took it upon himself to tell the colonists.  If he hadn't done that, things could have ended quite differently for our colonial settlements. How do we compare this with our obsession with communicating to hundreds of "friends" every tiny detail of our lives? Does the important stuff get lost in the blizzard of posts and tweets?  Or is that important stuff still communicated face to face? And can we tell the difference?


Julia Buckley said...

Good question; I think about our faster pace of life often and wonder at its ramifications. But since we're immersed in it, we probably can't know its effect until we see it in retrospect.

All of the electronic chatter reminds me of what the CIA has to go through to find the nuggets of real information. :)

Liz said...

FYI: Another Revere colleague:

Sheila Connolly said...

Sometimes I think Paul Revere had a very good publicist. David Hackett Fischer published a great book in 1995, called Paul Revere's Ride, in which he gave some of the oft-omitted details. Like when Revere arrived at the tavern in Lexington where Sam Adams and (heck, I forget who else) were hanging out--with all the important documents relating to the colonials' cause. There ensued much running around in the dark, in a swamp, trying to hide the all-important trunk before the redcoats arrived. Too bad they don't teach all this in schools--it makes history so much more interesting.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Sheila, have you read Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point? He mentions another man who made a ride similar to Revere's the same night but didn't get the same response, so the towns he alerted were not prepared. The theory is that Revere was so well-connected -- by personality, a connector who knew everyone, introduced people to others with whom they became friends or business associates, was involved in numerous community groups, etc. -- that when he sounded the alarm, folks rallied. Interesting theory, and it makes sense. We all know those kinds of folks, in person and online.