Before “Social Media”: Communication, Community, and Politics in the Twentieth-Century United States

AHA Session 219
Sunday, January 8, 2012: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Chicago Ballroom VII (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Timothy R. White, New Jersey City University
Conservative Media and the Making of a Movement
Nicole R. Hemmer, United States Studies Center, University of Sydney
Music Piracy and the Emergence of Social Media
Alex S. Cummings, Georgia State University
Michael R. Stamm, Michigan State University

Session Abstract

With the rise of Facebook, YouTube, and other new technologies, pundits and theorists have proclaimed a new era of “Web 2.0,” defined by an unprecedented degree of interactive participation in media.  As the story goes, the Internet has freed people to organize and interact virtually, in ways that transcend distance and time and complicate both personal intimacy and public activism.  Scholars have begun to historicize this narrative – showing, for instance, how the mass media of the early twentieth century provided the terrain for struggles between business and labor and the articulation of identity along lines of ethnicity and race – yet a full account of the ways Americans used media to connect, collaborate, and resist authority remains elusive.  This panel examines how people forged new bonds with likeminded strangers through the media of newspapers, radio, and sound recording, moving from the interactive readership of advice columns in the 1910s to networks of music piracy in the 1970s.  The papers show how Americans used media to foster new kinds of relationships that formed the basis for political movements such as Feminism, Creative Commons and the New Right.  In fact, it was often “virtual communities,” rather than face-to-face ones, that provided participants room to debate, discuss, and critique issues both intimate and politicized – divorce and marriage, the failings of the news and music industries, and many more. 

This panel considers both the structural origins of such communities and their cultural and political contributions to the public sphere.  Using and sometimes repurposing the corporate media of the twentieth century, Americans sought new kinds of spaces to alleviate the alienation of urban life and to seek out shared perspectives on politics and family affairs, as Julie Golia shows in her paper on women’s advice columns.  Nicole Hemmer illustrates how the American right used such communities to build an infrastructure of dissent, following the career of radio personality Clarence Manion and his efforts to combat the perceived bias of the mainstream media establishment.  In a different political context, Suzanne Kahn reveals how Eleanor Roosevelt’s column “If You Ask Me” provided a forum for voicing concerns and discourses that would later become central to Second Wave Feminism in the 1960s and 1970s.  Finally, Alex Cummings looks to the underground culture of bootlegging as a precursor of today’s file-sharing media, examining how Americans copied and traded rare and unreleased recordings from the 1930s to the 1970s.  These papers should appeal to historians of media, gender, music, and twentieth century American politics.  They demonstrate that media were not massive and monolithic; rather, they played a key role in the transformation of collective understandings of community and activism, public and private that occurred over the twentieth century.  Well before the first bloggers took to their keyboards, Americans used radio, newspaper, and other media to initiate political and social change that still reverberates today, both on the web and off.

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