I’ve been reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin (Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson), and several things have struck me about the way in which he conducted himself. As with a lot of historical figures, there is a certain aura that surrounds the man which is seen as impenetrable today, but it’s interesting to read about how he was perceived in his time and contrast that with how he would be perceived today. As usual, there is a certain limit to the usefulness of such speculation, as it necessarily must be based on certain assumptions that may or may not be true (as such this post might end up saying more about me and my assumptions than Franklin!). In any case, I find such exercises interesting, so I’d like to make a few observations.
The first is that he would have probably made a spectacular blogger, if he chose to engage in such an activity (Ken thinks he would definitely be a blogger, but I’m not so sure). He not only has all the makings of a wonderful blogger, I think he’d be extremely creative with the format. He was something of a populist, his writing was humorous, self-deprecating, and often quite profound at the same time. His range of knowledge and interest was wide, and his tone was often quite congenial. All qualities valued in any blogger.
He was incredibly prolific (another necessity for a successful blog), and often wrote the letters to his paper himself under assumed names, and structured them in such a way as to gently deride his competitors while making some other interesting point. For instance, Franklin once published two letters, written under two different pseudonyms, in which he manufactured the first recorded abortion debate in America – not because of any strong feelings on the issue, but because he knew it would sell newspapers and because his competitor was serializing entries from an encyclopedia at the time and had started with “Abortion.” Thus the two letters were not only interesting in themselves, but also provided ample opportunity to impugn his competitor.
On thing I think we’d see in a Franklin blog is entire comment threads consisting of a full back-and-forth debate, with all entries written by Franklin himself under assumed names. I can imagine him working around other “real” commenters with his own pseudonyms, and otherwise having fun with the format (he’d almost certainly make a spectacular troll as well).
If there was ever a man who could make a living out of blogging, I think Franklin was it. This is, in part, why I’m not sure he’d truly end up as a pure blogger, as even in his day, Franklin was known to mix private interests with public ones, and to leverage both to further his business interests. He could certainly have organized something akin to The Junto on the internet, where a group of likeminded fellows got together (whether it be physically or virtually over the internet) and discussed issues of the day and also endeavored to form a vehicle for the furtherance of their own careers.
Then again, perhaps Franklin would simply have started his own newspaper and had nothing to do with blogging (or perhaps he would attempt to mix the two in some new way). The only problem would be that the types of satire and hoaxes he could get away with in his newspapers in the early 18th century would not really be possible in today’s atmosphere (such playfulness has long ago left the medium, but is alive and well in the blogosphere, which is one thing that would tend to favor his participation).
Which brings me to my next point: I have to wonder how Franklin would have done in today’s political climate. Would he have been able to achieve political prominence? Would he want to? Would his anonymous letters, hoaxes, and in his newspapers have gotten him into trouble? I can imagine the self-righteous indignation now: “His newspaper is a farce! He’s a LIAR!” And the Junto? I don’t even want to think of the conspiracy theories that could be conjured with that sort of thing in mind.
One thing Franklin was exceptionally good at was managing his personal image, but would he be able to do so in today’s atmosphere? I suspect he would have done well in our time, but I don’t know how politically active he would be (and I suppose there is something to be said about his participation being partly influenced by the fact that he was a part of a revolution, not a true politician of the kind we have today). I know the basic story of his life, but I haven’t gotten that far in the book, so perhaps I should revisit this subject later. And thus ends my probably inaccurate, but interesting nonetheless, discussion of Franklin in our times. Expect more references to Franklin in the future, as I have been struck by quite a few things about his life that are worth discussing today.