When Abraham Lincoln invented Facebook

by Toby Manhire / 22 May, 2012
In the words of one observer, “You can’t make this stuff up, folks”.
Abraham Lincoln invented Facebook? The Springfield GazetteHowever rude about it some of us might be, there’s no getting around the fact. Facebook is a really big deal.

There was no escaping the share flotation last week, which valued the thing at an almighty US $104 billion. Here in little New Zealand – where the GDP is not an awful lot more than that – Facebook is used by about 80% of online New Zealanders.

That you probably knew. But did you know that Facebook was invented by Abraham Lincoln?

American web-head and blogger Nate St Pierre made this remarkable discovery, almost by accident, at the Lincoln Museum.

As he related on his blog:

It was a simple form letter from the United States Patent Office, stating “Your patent application for ‘The Gazette’ has been reviewed and denied.” The official U.S. seal was stamped and pressed into the paper. I looked back at the middle page, at the patent application itself. I wish I could just show you a picture, but here’s what I remember.


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.” Evidently there was to be someone overseeing this collection of documents, and he would somehow know which pages anyone could look at, and which ones only certain people could see (it wasn’t quite clear in the application). Lincoln stated that these documents could be updated “at any time deemed Fit or Necessary,” so that anyone in town could know what was going on in their friends’ lives “without being Present in Body.”


That was it. Pretty much just a simple one-page overview of how his system would work. After we read it, we both sat there quiet for a long time. It was so obvious what this was, guys.


A patent request for Facebook, filed by Abraham Lincoln in 1845.


Wow. Little surprise that this discovery bounced around the internet like pinball on multiball.

The response on the popular site The Next Web was typical. Here’s Drew Olanoff:

Could you imagine every single person in your town having their own newspaper? That would have been a lot of dead trees. But there you have it, Abraham Lincoln out-Zucked Mark Zuckerberg – 167 years ago.


And:

You can’t make this stuff up, folks.


Except that you can, and St Pierre did.

Over to Megan Garber at the Atlantic:

Such a great find. So it was fitting and entirely unsurprising that the post announcing the big discovery, as it sped around the Internet ... got more than 4,000 likes on Facebook and 30,000 views [in a few hours] – this despite spending over an hour offline as it crashed its host servers. How could it not get attention? Abe Lincoln, pretty much inventing Facebook!


But also, wait a second: Abe Lincoln, pretty much inventing Facebook?


I called David Blanchette at the Lincoln Library. Was there any way this story could really be true? In short: no. "This is a complete hoax," Blanchette told me. The existence of the Springfield Gazette as a proto-profile page? "Spurious." The picture of Lincoln at the top of said publication? "They didn't run pictures in newspapers back then." The library's help in making the serendipitous discovery? "We had nothing to do with it."


Why the hoax? “I just wanted to have a little fun,” St Pierre told Garber. “And cause a little chaos." But also, in Garber’s summary, to provide “an illustration not just of the web's virality, but also of its often awkward relationship with veracity”.

Garber concludes:

So while the internet, today, is disappointed in St. Pierre ... St. Pierre, for his part, is sort of disappointed in the Internet. We now have a thing that lets us, just as "Honest Abe" wanted, "keep aware of Others in the Town." How we use that thing, though, is up to us. "I just think this is fun; I don't think it hurts anybody," St. Pierre says of his prank. At the same time, though, "people have this willing suspension of disbelief," he notes. And with people and outlets constantly racing to find the newest and shiniest and share-iest thing on the web, "you can take advantage of that if you want."

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