Could social media have helped John Brown?

February 09, 2011|By TIM ROWLAND |
  • Rowland

I had what I thought was a fascinating idea for a series of columns, the working title being "Back in Time With Twitter," in which I investigated how social networking might have impacted great historical events in our past.

The first segment was going to involve John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry. From there, I was going to explore how Twitter might have saved Julius Caesar from assassination, the ramifications of live video conferencing on the Constitution and the merry mixups that might arise had Jamuka friended Genghis Khan.

I chose John Brown initially, however, because of the communication complexities involved.

Brown and his gang were hiding out at the Kennedy Farm in southern Washington County, where they crowded together upstairs in the attic by day, and performed their military drills at night.

Summer. Attic. Daytime. Wool clothing. Yuk.

So Brown needed to keep everything a big secret. The sight of a black man toting a rifle would set people back then to talking with a speed that might have made modern e-mail seem like a message in a bottle.

However, Brown simultaneously needed to get the word out to slaves that they were to revolt.

Clearly, supplied with the communication tools he had at hand (which basically amounted to "Hey you!"), he was not able to get the job done. Slaves had three basic questions: 1. John who? 2. Wants us to what? 3. Is he nuts?

Curiously, I once taught an English class at the prison where the student-prisoners had, to a man, not heard of John Brown. Told of his mission, they had various reactions:

"I'da rolled with him."

"With 20 dudes? 'Fore I sign on, I'm sittin' down with the man and having a talk about the fundamentals."

"Naw, man, if you're on the street you ain't thinking about the consequences, you thinkin' about the flip."

They went on in this vein for a while, with me understanding a word or two here and there, like when I'm sitting in a South American airport.

They were quite keen on the topic, and it — flash forward two years — combined with the situation in Egypt, made me wonder what John Brown might have been able to accomplish if he'd had a Facebook page.

Obviously, he had an idea that, channeled to the right people, could go viral. But then I thought, no. You know how it is when you just kind of accept a friend's request without really paying a whole lot of attention to who it is?

All it would have taken is for Brown to have been friended by, say, a "J.Davis," and the whole plot could have been blown. (Although he might have gotten suspicious when he got an offer of 100 acres of cotton on Plantationville.)

So then I thought Twitter might be the better option: @slaves u r corjulee invite 2 b at h.ferry oct. 18 sharp. B thou there or b thou square.

But tech-savvy people have probably already caught on to the fundamental flaw in my "Back in Time With Twitter" project, that being that I don't really even know enough about social media to properly make fun of it. Really, one Farmville joke, and that's all I got.

So rather than embarrass us both, I'll just pull the plug on the idea right now.

The Herald-Mail Articles