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Monday, November 8, 2010

Benjamin Franklin, 21, creates one of the first American social networks

In an essay in the October 4 issue of The New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell challenged the claims that Twitter and Facebook have reinvented social activism by comparing them unfavorably with the low-tech achievements of Civil Rights activists in the 1960s. A recent post on Pilant’s Business Ethics Blog reminds us, however, that impressive social networks existed more than two hundred years earlier. James Pilant quotes biographer John Torrey Morse, Jr.’s account of how Benjamin Franklin used the Junto group he created to launch the first fire company in Philadelphia in 1736. He also used the network to develop a library.

Twenty-one-old entrepreneur Franklin formed the Leather Apron Club, self-dubbed the Junto, in 1727 as soon as he decided to settle in Philadelphia. The social elite had their gentlemen’s clubs; what Franklin sought was an association of working tradesmen and artisans who would gather once a week to discuss issues of common concern. As biographer Walter Isaacson describes them:
At first the members went to a local tavern for their Friday evening meetings, but soon they were able to rent a house of their own. There they discussed issues of the day, debated philosophical topics, devised schemes for self-improvement, and formed a network for the furtherance of their own careers. . .
The tone Franklin set for Junto meetings was earnest. Initiates were required to stand, lay their hands on their breast, and answer properly four questions: Do you have disrespect for any current member? Do you love mankind in general regardless of religion or profession? Do you feel people should ever be punished because of their opinion or mode of worship? Do you love and pursue truth for its own sake?
Those familiar with Facebook’s popular “25 Random Things about Me” may be amused to know that Franklin developed a guide listing useful conversation topics for Junto members. It consisted of twenty-four questions. Here are a few:
1. Have you met with anything in the author you last read, remarkable, or suited to be communicated to the Junto? . . .
2. What new story have you lately heard agreeable for telling in conversation?
17. Is there any man whose friendship you want, and which the Junto or any of them, can procure for you?
Junto members were encouraged to bring to meetings books for other members to read; but books were expensive so Franklin hit on the idea of recruiting subscribers outside the Junto who would pay for the right to borrow books. In soliciting subscriptions Franklin discovered that people were reluctant to support “a proposer of any useful project that might be supposed to raise one’s reputation.” So Franklin attributed the idea of the library to his friends. This approach worked so well that Franklin “ever after practiced it on such occasions.” The Library Company of Philadelphia was incorporated on November 8, 1731.

The Junto became so popular that Franklin encouraged members to form their own satellite groups, but these weren’t the only social networks in colonial America. Literary societies flourished all along the eastern seaboard. In an interview with The Library of America, David S. Shields describes the colonial and Revolutionary-era American literary scene:
One of the features of the world of the late 17th and all throughout the 18th century was that like-minded people who believed in [common] values gathered together in a number of associations: ladies’ tea tables and salons, tavern clubs, coffeehouse associations, societies for the promotion of some ideal, or subscribing libraries.
You can find a Google Map of many of these colonial salons, coteries, and literary clubs here.

Related LOA works: Benjamin Franklin: Silence Dogood, The Busy-Body, and Early Writings; American Poetry: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

1 comment:

  1. This reminds me of a recent essay comparing early American almanacs, like Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac, to the iPhone. The essay, by Molly McCarthy, is also discussed in "Idea of the Day" in the New York Times: "The Almanac as Early iPhone"


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