- Introduction:Networks and the Nineteenth-Century Periodical
Discussing the ongoing shift from print to Web and its "reorganization of one-to-many and many-to-one communications under a new hegemony of many-to-many collaboration" in a recent issue of New Literary History, Alan Liu asks:
Can we be friends with the past? If so, will the past friend us? What philosophy of history . . . can make such amity possible in an information age when our craving for instant data binds us to an ever more expansive, yet also vanishingly thin, present—a razor's slice of now big enough for each of us to have a thousand Facebook friends or Twitter followers so long as all that friendship fits on a single screen of attention before rolling off into oblivion?1
Liu's own answer to this question involves reclaiming "the symphonic narrative of Zuzammenhang (linear or multilinear connectedness) characteristic of the great nineteenth-century histories and novels."2 But there is also another major literary form of the nineteenth century that can perhaps help us to find precursors to the "multilinear connectedness" of the Internet—namely, the periodical. To begin to apprehend the continuities and discontinuities between antebellum magazines and the twenty-first century web, it is opportune to turn to David Fincher's 2010 film The Social Network. Arguably the most psychologically incisive mainstream study of the Facebook era to date, The Social Network plots its vision of the breach between past and present around the legal conflict between geeky Jewish whiz-kid Mark Zuckerberg and his former backers, the Winklevoss twins, WASP-ish gatekeepers to the prestigious Porcellian Club. If the latter organization signals one hoary model of the social network, then Fincher offers us another telling indication of the Winklevoss's reliance on traditional forms of social connection by showing them first being alerted [End Page 93] to Zuckerberg through their reading of the Harvard Crimson, a daily student newspaper, which began its life as a biweekly journal in 1875.
While the Crimson may seem emblematic of an archaic media landscape that Facebook is destined to revolutionize here, elsewhere in the film the waning of print's power appears less certain. In a pair of later scenes, for example, Zuckerberg's horror at seeing an embarrassing story about a business partner in the Crimson, and the sudden production of a clipping from this story at the legal hearing between the two, suggests the continuing ability of the press to make or break attachments and to lay down a culturally-authoritative record of events. If The Social Network's sensitivity to the residual influence of the press, and its subtle depiction of Zuckerberg as both visionary pioneer and prickly misfit, helps to account for the complexity of its insights, the same cannot be said for the slew of popular books on social networking that have invaded the book charts in recent years. Typically boasting titles like Connected:
The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks (2009) or The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) (2011), these studies tend to divide crudely along the lines of either celebrating or condemning Web 2.0 while sharing an anecdote-heavy style bereft of long-range historical context. Albert-Laszlo Barabasi's Bursts: The Hidden Pattern behind Everything We Do (2010) may invoke Mark Twain's dictum that "history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme," for example, yet its account of "network thinking" is relentlessly concerned with "projecting the future."3 It is evident, then, that we are still waiting for a sustained answer to Alan Liu's call "to project the model of social networking backwards over historical networks of authors and works."4
Crucially, in any such turn to the history of networks, the periodical will no doubt be given a prominent place since, more than any other popular form of the nineteenth century, it embodies the concept of the network on both a material level (in the juxtapositions and interconnections it generates between different texts) and on an institutional level (in the collaboration between authors, editors, illustrators, publishers, and readers, which goes into...