Information Networks in the Eighteenth-Century French Press: Published Correspondence and the Culture of Debate, 1770–88

Thursday, January 2, 2014: 3:30 PM
Washington Room 6 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Elizabeth Andrews, University of California, Irvine
Recent studies published over the last fifteen years in the fields of computer science, physics, and social science have transformed our understanding of the structures through which information is transmitted.  Such studies explore how networks form and how information is passed through them, allowing information to spread more quickly and to influence individual responses to such information.  Drawing upon network theory in the social sciences, this paper explores the important role networks play in shaping the public’s access to, interactions with, and responses to information in the context of eighteenth century France.  The author will give particular attention to a collection of letters to the editor published in French newspapers published in Paris, Marseille, Dijon, Troyes, Poitiers, Grenoble, Metz, and Toulouse between 1770 and 1788.  Employing qualitative and quantitative analysis, this paper pays particular attention to the content that is shared or repeated from one publication to another.  Rather than reading a single newspaper in isolation, the content of the newspapers suggest that readers and editors alike often picked up an interesting letter or paragraph and republished it elsewhere.  This project traces the transfer of information via the hundreds of letters published throughout France during this period, allowing us to understand how Enlightenment ideas “went viral,” gaining popularity and spreading throughout the Francophone world.  I argue that information networks, like letters to the editor reveal how information spread, how the exchange of information accelerated, and how such structural changes tied readers in French towns, colonies, and in Paris into communication with one another, constituting an important locus for debate and discussion under the Old Regime.
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