We often see our present technological age as an entirely new social era. While theology marked the Medieval period, technology defines ours. We have new social codes and modes of communication, enabled through our fancy handheld devices and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Though we can’t deny technology’s role in propagating this culture of constant communication, we can trace some of our impulses back a little further than the coming of AOL. What happens if we jump back a few hundred years and enter the academic community that was the Republic of Letters?
The Republic of Letters was a vast network of scholarly communication, with participants as integral to modern knowledge as Voltaire, Adam Smith, and Benjamin Franklin. These intellectuals would pass letters discussing the ideas of the day and forming a tradition of peer review and critique, their debates ranging from topics like the Cartesian plane to the role of women in academic communities. Their exchanges also led to the growth of formal institutions like salons, academies, and research universities, whose sole purpose was to manufacture knowledge and progress society. The Republic, however, existed not only in these physical spaces, but also consciously in the minds of its participants. This dual existence is what commentators today call both ‘real’ and ‘imagined’ communities.
Centuries later, academics still host their intellectual jousts on numerous platforms that we’ve adapted from the original Republic of Letters — academic conferences, top disciplinary journals, televised debates. These continue to allow steady exchanges of ideas that, in theory, transcend local contexts and give voice to poets and scientists alike.
Yet it was not merely the creation of institutions that made the Republic, but the opportunity and possibility it represented. For 18th century writer Samuel Richardson, “the little words in the Republic of Letters, like the little folks in a nation, are the most useful and significant.” In many ways, the Republic represented an effort to democratize knowledge on a newer, more expansive scale. Perhaps then our truest modern representation of the Republic of Letters is not the university or journal, but the social media site Twitter.
A growing community of academics has joined Twitter in our present age of high speed communication. In 140 characters, the professor and celebrity alike must concisely and compellingly convey both their ideas and personality. The tweet has replaced the handwritten letter here, and unlike the private exchanges of the Republic, these messages hold a potential audience of over six million. Users can specify addressees or simply toss out an idea to the public, combining both blog and chat functions of previous social networks. For academics, Twitter provides a way to not only publicize their recent work easily, but also follow up on quick criticisms and engage with a general audience on personal and professional levels. Glancing through the feeds of economists like UC Berkeley Professor Brad DeLong or writers like Joyce Carol Oates, we can see a range of tweets from daily political news digests to casual applications of critical theory to episodes of Breaking Bad.
This academic community is what I’d like to call the new Twitter-Republic of Letters, where participants can engage with one another in intellectual, philosophical, and jesterly debates. The efficient format and real time pace simulate the frenzy and spirit of the previous Republic. And unlike segregated academic institutions, Twitter presents few barriers to entry for both the public and the professional.
What does this mean? It means that for some, Twitter is only continuing the mission set out by generations past. It allows the diffusion of academics’ ideas to different parts of the community and stands for a meritocratic production of knowledge. Anyone can engage in the debates as long as their offering is of perceived value.
This is especially important in cementing the academic Twittersphere as the true heir to the Republic of Letters. While the former republic was so purposeful in crafting its self-image, today’s Twitter republic is less of an articulated ‘imagined community’. In the 18th century, amidst monarchical rule, the Age of Enlightenment, and a brewing sense of democracy and modernity, participation in the Republic of Letters was a political act. It represented a commitment to the production of knowledge and a belief in the importance of intellectual discourse. Undoubtedly the academics on Twitter today subscribe to similar values. However, where the community then spread outward from scholarly elites, today’s network began with the masses.
Twitter was originally conceived as an alternative to text messaging. Slowly, news agencies and public figures adopted the platform, sensing the potential to broadcast ideas quickly and accessibly. Soon, institutions like the London School of Economics began publishing guides on tweeting for academics. While academics now compose a growing subset of the Twittersphere, they are not its gatekeepers nor primary participants. They adopted the mode as it became prevalent, and as such, joined a broader imagined community of users beyond themselves.
In many ways, technological innovations have completely transformed the way we see ourselves and the world. But in many cases, as with Twitter and forms of academic discourse, they simply enable the construction of the past in the present.