Jing Jiang / Sun Staff Photographer

Prof. Lee Humphreys, communication, compare social media habits in the modern day to those in the 19th century.

September 27, 2018

Communication Professor Compares Twitter to 19th Century Journals

Print More

When you hear the word social media, you probably imagine someone hunched over their phone, not a 19th century farmer tallying how much hay they baled. However, Prof. Lee Humphreys, communication, asserted that the two might be more closely related than you think.

At a talk on Thursday in Mann Library, Humphreys spoke about her new book, The Qualified Self: Social Media and the Accounting of Everyday Life, which explores how the “mundane details of daily life did not start with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube but with pocket diaries, photo albums, and baby books,” according to The MIT Press’ website.

Humphreys pointed out that the similarities between something that seems ancient, like a pocket diary, and Twitter aren’t just skin deep. Rather, their formats share the same roots.

For example, she pointed out how people are familiar with using the 280 character limit on Twitter to spout out their thoughts, but not everyone knows how the transition from full-page notebooks to pocket-diaries was a similar phenomenon in the 19th century.

“Having smaller pages — people loved it,” Humphreys said. “I often equate it to sitting down to a Word document versus sitting down to a Post-it note. They took the constraints of size as an opportunity to write less.”

In addition, people in the 19th century also made sure that their relatives and friends were aware of the daily activities they were putting in their journals.

“When people might come visit, you would take your journal out and go through it with them together,” Humphreys said.

Aparajita Bhandari grad, who is studying communication and attended the talk, agreed that this practice of making sure people saw your “diary” has continued into modern social media.

“I think a common thing I’ve recently seen is when people get in to schools or even when people get engaged,” she said. “It’s one of those things that you are expected to like just to show that you know about it or to say ‘good for them.’”

However, Humphreys said there are some aspects of new social media that have changed greatly. For example, Kodak had complete access to their users’ images in the early 1900s, just like how Facebook has complete access to their users’ images today.

“The biggest difference between Kodak and Facebook is not access to all of our content,” Humphreys said. “It’s what they do with that. Kodak makes its money from its technology and services. Facebook makes 98 percent of its revenue from advertising.”

Although Facebook users might also be wondering what will happen to their content once the site ends, Humphrey pointed out that even in this “post-digital” world, there are still ways for users to capture their profiles. Companies like My Social Book, for example, offer a service to create a bound copy of your Facebook and Instagram posts, according to its website.

Megan Sawey grad, a communication student who also attended the lecture, said that while she has yet to buy one of these books, she would use the service.

“There is some weird stuff from high school and early college [on my social media],” Sawey said. “I think it would be cool just to see the transformation.”