Why I Do Communications History

Markets are conversations.

When the writers of the Cluetrain Manifesto wrote this over a decade ago, they were looking for something revolutionary. They were trying to express the impact of the astounding new power of electronic media on communications– the internet, we are told all the time, is the biggest thing since the printing press!

And a lot of people who drank the Cluetrain Kool-Aid have been somewhat discouraged by what they’ve seen in the last ten years. Where’s the big change? Online communications has allowed for the kinds of conversational brand advocacy that Cluetrain advocates, but in general, corporate communications and marketing are just business as usual. Certainly, a purist would argue that most companies haven’t taken the lessons of cluetrain to heart, they haven’t gotten into the real, human conversations, and haven’t reaped the benefits as a result. And that’s not an invalid assessment.

But a couple weeks ago, another reason dawned on me as I was reading on the subway. Something painfully obvious. Markets are communications in the information age, yes. But that was just as true in the nineteenth century as it is today. And likewise, communications in the nineteenth century was undergoing a set of dramatic transformations, much like today. The internet changes everything, to be sure. But that itself is business as usual.

The internet has revolutionized communications. But looking at the history of the United States, from 1788 to present, with an eye to communications technology, one witnesses a nation that is more often in the midst of a communications revolution than it is not. American History has in many ways been singularly defined by a long series of communications revolutions.

From the First Amendment and the Postal Road System to the telegraph to the birth of the Railway Mail Service to the rise of the mass media and the advent of the telephone to the television age to the internet, the United States has been a nation that has been constantly being reshaped by revolutionary shifts in communications. The way that people communicate has been shifting rapidly and radically for most of our nation’s history.

What makes communications history such an exciting lens into history is its ability to bring together the two most important historiographic trends of the last thirty years— the quantitative, materialist approach of the new social history, and the cultural theory and more literary analysis that constitutes the cultural turn. Communications technologies shape and drive markets. These networks are an essential engine of the economy. Simultaneously, it is within the content of communications media that we have our only window into the discursive forces that shape culture. It is for this reason that I think communications history is critically under-explored.

Certainly, ever since Marshall McLuhan became a public intellectual rock star, there has been an ever-growing community of people in media studies, and that [inter]discipline has influenced a good number of historians. There is a lot more work that should be done, however– and communications history needs to be allowed a more central role in our historiography. It’s time to let communications history have center stage.

There are many well-researched histories of particular media– there are books on the telephone, the telegraph, motion pictures, et cetera. These usually focus on the technological, business, and/or legislative-governmental aspects of the medium’s history. And there are books that analyze cultural phenomena within media (usually broadcast media), from issues of class in early silent films to performances of race on the internet. There are far fewer books that integrate both the medium and the message, unfortunately.

Historians have drawn extensively on letters throughout modern historiography. But rare is the author who positions those letters within both the cultural practice of letter writing as it changes over time and the postal networks that allow for such communication. Too often, the letter as an object itself is overlooked.

I think there is still a large body of potential work that foregrounds the history of communications and uses it as an inroads to other avenues of historical investigation.

There are at least three recent books that I have encountered that do an excellent job of foregrounding communications in the way I am discussing. I’m sure there are others, and would welcome suggestions, but these are three that have caught my attention for their broad scope and deep insight.

Paul Starr’s 2005 The Creation of the Media is impressive in its scope, taking a comparative approach to media and contrasting the development of the American media over the last 300 years with the parallel developments in France and Britain, arguing for the uniqueness of the US media environment. It’s an impressive read, and an amazing introductory text on the subject. While it’s still almost entirely on the media and very little on their messages, it is admirable for creating.

More recently, Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought is a work of synthetic history, bringing together much of the most important work in the historiography of the Age of Jackson. One of the primary arguments of the book– and one of its most fascinating– is a re-framing of the Market Revolution as a Communications Revolution, foregrounding the import of the rapid dissemination of information as the key change that allowed for the transformation of the American economy.

Unfortunately, by concluding in 1848, (a date which one guesses he chose for the death of his book’s hero, John Quincy Adams) he downplays the import of the postal rate reductions of 1845 and 1851. As David Henkin has demonstrated, the import of these rate reforms cannot be overstated, as they allowed for a major cultural shift toward a more egalitarian world of letters in the US. Despite this, the book is admirable for its foregrounding of the broader impact of communications, and makes what I feel is a convincing case on that point.

Finally, Henkin’s 2007 The Postal Age— while much more narrow in its scope than the above two books– does an amazing job of integrating information about the legislation, policy, and technologies that shape the postal system of the mid-nineteenth century with discussion of the system’s public, and how they used the post. While I would have loved to see even more analysis of everyday letter writers’ rhetoric and discourse, that would have fallen a bit out of the book’s scope, and even still, Henkin proves– as he did in City Reading— that he is a master at the difficult task of discussing the complex praxes of common literacy.

What attracts a historian to a particular topic, methodology, or theoretical approach is always highly subjective, and I’m not trying to pretend that this isn’t the case for me as well. My primary objective in writing this post has been to try to better put into words why I think that communications history is a worthwhile and interesting lens into American History, an inroad that has yet to be well-explored.

Of course, it would be wonderful to see the field bloom, to see “Communications Historian” listings in the AHA job listings, or to see curatorial positions open up in a new National Communications Museum (something some other nations have, from what I’ve been told.) I think communications history is just starting to prove itself as a worthy specialty for historians to explore. As I said, it does bring together threads from both social history and the cultural turn, and for those who are banking on digital humanities being the next big thing in the field, I think it could play quite nicely with DH, as well.

Even if none of that happens, however, it’s what I want to study and research. It fits quite nicely with my personal interests, and I’m confident that there’s many careers’ over worth of research left to be done.


ETA: There is now a second part to this blog post, which can be found here.