Pamphleteers, Pirate Radio, and the Blogosphere

There have been three major media innovations which have altered the movement of western history like none other:

  • Moveable type printing press (15th century)
  • Broadcast radio (early 20th century and includes television)
  • The internet (late 20th century)

Each made communication between an originator and a large group of people possible. Each has been both a tremendous blessing and a curse to society, providing enormous amounts of information but also creating potential for abuse. Each continues with us in some form to the present day and holds tremendous influence.

When the moveable type printing press became popular and accessible toward the end of the 15th century and through the 16th, millions of books were printed. But these books represent only a small portion of the output. Most of the printing done in the first centuries was pamphlets.

The English were particularly good at pamphleteering. One of William Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Robert Greene, used pamphlets to disparage and accuse virtually everyone he could think of – including Shakespeare himself. On his deathbed, Robert Greene authored a pamphlet called rather majestically and penitentially “Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, bought with a million of Repentaunce“. Greene’s Groatsworth is fairly typical of pamphleteering in the 16th century. It is slim on fact and strong on verbose allusion and virulent accusation.

During the English Civil War, pamphlets were printed to argue for both sides of the conflict. The Roundheads used pamphlets to expose the machinations of King Charles while the Cavaliers used it them to defend the king’s actions.

Pamphlets were very common in the colonies as well. Benjamin Franklin’s presses turned out a fair number of them, but he was not the only one by any stretch of the imagination. Into the 20th century, pamphlets were still the most common way to disseminate information either not lengthy enough or not popular enough to publish in a book.

In the 20th century, the development of broadcast radio (which includes television broadcasts) allowed people to transmit their information directly to people’s homes. Although governments began regulation of radio broadcasts relatively early (the American FCC was founded in 1934), there was always the potential for pirate radio. By its very nature, radio broadcast can be done virtually anywhere using minimal equipment.

What’s more, if you are willing to pay for the time or generate enough revenue for the station, you can buy radio and television time for virtually anything.

In the last decade of the 20th century, the internet became the primary source of information for most people. The internet is a completely free environment in most western nations, and with the advent of easily edited and updated platforms, blogging (a portmanteau of web and blog) has become the modern equivalent of pamphleteering and pirate radio.

In 2007, Technorati (a blog search engine) was tracking over 112 million blogs.  In 2010, the number had jumped to 126 million (a 12.% increase), but that number did not include the advent of social networking and micro-blogging (such as Twitter). Facebook alone has over 500 million profiles and Twitter has over 75 million microbloggers. This also does not include the over 3.7 million articles that make up the online information source Wikipedia.

All of these outlets have something in common – they are unregulated outlets. This is good in a sense because it means there is no ulterior motive except the worldview of the author. But it is also not so good in the sense that there are no checks and balances, not editorial review. Just as pamphlets in the 16th century could be misleading or simply false, so too a blog is not necessarily true.

The world of pamphleteering and blogging should never be considered decisive. I encounter this all the time. Someone reads something on a blog and assumes it is true. There is no way you can assume something like that – even about this blog. While I do attempt to present accurate information, since there is no review or editor, I do make mistakes. Every blogger does; just some aren’t willing to admit it.

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