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Lincoln, Facebook and journalism

Abraham Lincoln Facebook Cell Phone

A funny thing happened yesterday involving Facebook, patents and Abraham Lincoln. It’s a good lesson about the difference between blogging, curation and journalism. Here’s what went down.

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On his blog, Internet geek Nate St. Pierre posted a satirical story titled, “Abraham Lincoln Filed a Patent for Facebook in 1845.” St. Pierre takes the reader on a ramble through history, mentioning P.T. Barnum (he of “There’s a sucker born every minute” fame) and eventually arriving in Springfield, Illinois. Then he unspools a yarn about some old documents he found during a visit to the Lincoln Museum, including a newspaper arranged suspiciously like a Facebook profile:

“Lincoln was requesting a patent for ‘The Gazette,’ a system to ‘keep People aware of Others in the Town.’ He laid out a plan where every town would have its own Gazette, named after the town itself. He listed the Springfield Gazette as his Visual Appendix, an example of the system he was talking about. Lincoln was proposing that each town build a centrally located collection of documents where ‘every Man may have his own page, where he might discuss his Family, his Work, and his Various Endeavors.’ He went on to propose that ‘each Man may decide if he shall make his page Available to the entire Town, or only to those with whom he has established Family or Friendship.’… It was so obvious what this was, guys. A patent request for Facebook, filed by Abraham Lincoln in 1845.”

The clincher? Lincoln was denied the patent.

I can’t be sure what was in St. Pierre’s head when he wrote that post, but I read it as witty commentary for a knowing audience. Of course Lincoln never applied for any such patent. The post is about our patent system—a relic of a lost era, absurd when applied to a modern company like Facebook. The post also observes that today’s modern privacy concerns are hardly new, as people have faced such issues with every new communications technology.

(Update, 5/10/12: Nate has posted a follow-up article explaining his original Lincoln-Facebook post. You should check it out: Anatomy of a Hoax: How Abraham Lincoln Invented Facebook.)

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That was my takeaway. Several reporters and bloggers for tech websites saw St. Pierre’s post and responded quite differently.

Not a single fact in the original versions of any of these stories was true. And they were shared widely on social media by tens of thousands of people. It all adds up to a serious failure of skepticism.

Come on! Abraham Lincoln as a Winklevoss twin?! Based on one blog post by a guy you’ve never heard of, who supports his curiously entertaining story with a fuzzy old newspaper and a patent filing he doesn’t actually have a copy of?

After the story was thoroughly debunked, all of these posts were eventually retracted.

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Okay, with that out of the way, let’s talk blogging, curation and journalism. (For the purposes of conversation, I’m talking about these words only in the context of writing.)

Nate St. Pierre was practicing blogging. He created an original work aimed at a specific audience — in his case, sophisticated techies who enjoy a fun take on technology from a novel perspective, and are smart enough to realize Abraham Lincoln didn’t really invent anything like Facebook.

The writers for ZDNet, The Next Web, and Forbes were practicing curation. Curators mine the web for interesting things other people have created and repackage them. Unfortunately, in this case the work was packaged as journalism.

Journalism requires at least a cursory effort to verify facts, and usually some reporting to add additional information and context. The people who debunked the erroneous Lincoln stories were practicing journalism. Some of these people weren’t even journalists, just folks from the audience (in the comments or on Twitter) who proved to be sharper than the professional writers.

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Got that? Now here’s where things get complicated.

You can practice blogging, curation and journalism at the same time. I like to think Breaking Copy fits that description. So do many better blogs. It’s more expensive (in terms of time) to write this way, which can seem irrational when you consider…

Audiences make no distinction between blogging, curation and journalism. Readers don’t care if the entertaining story or photo or video they saw is in its original context, or re-blogged on Tumblr, or re-pinned on Pinterest, or re-written for The Huffington Post. They just care if they like it. Also…

Curation without blogging or journalism is the cheapest source of content. It requires the least training or talent.

Online publishers know this. Squeezed to make a profit off ad revenues, they employ inexpensive writers to gather as many potentially viral stories as they can and rewrite them as fast as possible. It seems safe to say the majority of “newsy” writing that gets published online today is curation disguised as journalism.

Sometimes the writers are under such pressure to be fast they barely even think through what they’re doing. Just copy-and-paste a few paragraphs, link back, write a new top, and shovel it into the machine.

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This machine breaks down, as we’ve just seen, when you feed it satire. It’s like a Chinese newspaper rewriting a story from The Onion as if it were true. Also, a curation machine tends to repeat and amplify problematic content: Errors made by seemingly credible websites, wrong facts for which there’s no obvious expert to knock them down, unproven rumors, misinterpreted statistics, and so on.

The economics of the web favors curation — yet curation is the content stream with the greatest potential for spreading low-quality information.

I’m reminded of something Lincoln once said: “The Internet’s got problems.”

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Lincoln photo-illustration by Breaking Copy; Source image: Library of Congress; Inspiration: here

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under News & Journalism, Technology

5 comments

  1. Alice says:

    Daryl: THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS!!!!! My dad goes nuts (he’s a historian) when people cite Wikipedia as a credible information source.

  2. Greg Roy says:

    Thank you for posting, though I got here from his second post. My wife teaches history and, to prove to her students why Wikipedia is not a trusted source, was once listed as a Pope for 1 hour and 20 minutes before it was removed.

    • David Albee says:

      This is splitting semantic hairs but… Wikipedia is neither a reliable nor unreliable source, as it is not a source (see Daryl’s succinct breakdown of blogging VS curation VS jouornalism) it is curation. Most Wikipedia articles carry footnotes which lead to the original sources of the article; in other words, some level of verification (or not) is just a click away…

  3. Yeah, but you haven’t exactly disproved the existence of the Lincoln Facebook documents either.

    For all we know, they actually exist. In my black-helicopter plagued rural county, this would be accepted as absolute proof…

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