Media Revolutions and “Friends”

One of the most eye-catching details about the poet Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) was his lack of friends – or rather, his caution around his acquaintances.

Who could blame those who knew him? Marvell was – or became – a private, suspicious man, quite fractious at times. He is absent from Thomas Stanley’s ‘Register of Friends’, despite seemingly being part of his coterie in the late 1640s. More strikingly, he may have been married for the last 12 years of his life without anybody knowing.

John Aubrey’s Brief Lives tells us that Marvell was “of very few words” and that when alone, he turned to wine. “He kept bottles of wine at his lodgeing, and many times he would drinke liberally by himselfe to refresh his spirits, and exalt his Muse”.

On the other hand, who could blame him? Marvell was dedicated to his work. He witnessed others readily changing allegiance. He witnessed intelligence networks sabotaging the postal system. He may have dismissed an attempt at bribery, just as he may have been involved in (or known of) some skulduggery around his election to Parliament.

Marvell’s strong aptitude for privacy amidst an expansive public sphere made his friendships more cautious and selective. Perhaps he cared about what friendship actually meant. The relationship between Marvell and John Milton was hardly straightforward, but it persevered, and ‘On Mr Milton’s Paradise Lost’ is a powerful gesture.

Social Media and Friends

If these are the times…

When starting my doctoral thesis, I found myself constantly exploring anachronistic questions: “Milton surely would have blogged. Would Marvell have blogged too? Maybe only if anonymity was guaranteed?”

The arrival of the first major media revolution since the 1640s brings with it a chance to understand similarly prevalent issues.

The so-called ‘stigma of print’ is one such issue. In the sixteenth century, many authors considered print to be vulgar and preferred to circulate in manuscript. This trend was out of fashion by the revolutionary decades of 1640-1660. But why?

Once print ‘took off’ to a mass market, it seems everyone rushed for a piece of the action. This suggestion comes from a similar cultural phenomenon where everyone can have their voice heard. Easy-found fame is attractive, and people risk being left behind if they do not embrace new networks.

Fractured Friendship

Such networks have fractured the fabric of interpersonal bonds, including what friendship actually means. People leave open invites for strangers to befriend them on social networks, often collecting hundreds of contacts, many of whom they never speak to. The understanding of friendship appears to have become diluted.

Perhaps that’s as it’s meant to be, except that it’s difficult to let go. And here is where the analogy to print comes in. When the cultural norm alters, it is easy to feel worryingly adrift if you don’t follow.

Recently, I was discussing how early social media nurtured friendship. The tide has changed considerably.

If you are a friend, or care about friendship, thank you. There’s also a great post on Facebook and Social Awkwardness which puts much of this maligned theory into most amusing practice.


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