I recently finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin. I was on guard going in because of the serious issues I took with his Steve Jobs book. However, he is good at collecting a pertinent, if not comprehensive, overview of his subjects’ lives, so I decided let the author introduce me to Franklin.
Benjamin Franklin is a polarizing figure. Some see a renaissance statesman while others see the irreverent immoral excess of the enlightenment. Franklin was both those things and more. As I read about his many ventures, one question occurred to me. What would Benjamin Franklin have done with the internet?
Franklin’s trade was printing. He owned a successful press that printed newspapers and early periodicals. He understood the importance of generating his own content and would write letters to the editor, himself, to get his point across to readers in a roundabout way. His homespun wisdom and working class ethic were compiled in the best selling Poor Richard’s Almanac.
Looking at his chosen profession it is easy to see similarities with modern bloggers. He syndicated content as well as produced his own. His paper, while reporting the news, was also an organ for his own views and opinions. In his day the idea of journalistic objectivity was not widely accepted, if it existed at all. He could swing from news to editorial without projecting the dissonance we all feel when observing the media today.
I don’t know if Benjamin Franklin would have been a blogger today or not—that’s an impossible hypothetical—but his work was not dissimilar. Blogs today report the news, share advice, promote world-views, offer instruction, and more. They all do it through their author’s voice, with their opinions and biases mixed in. This may seem at first glance to be problematic, but the truth is that we trust honest people who wear their opinion on their sleeve and hold views that are worth defending. This messy discourse may not be good enough for the idealized newspaper but it was good enough for Benjamin Franklin. He helped fight a revolution and form a nation because he honed a voice that Americans loved and trusted.
What can we do with the voices we form and polish on the internet? I don’t know if we can have the impact that Franklin had, the sheer number of voices today can intimidating, but printing (and now the internet) has always pushed the world to new places. Maybe we can raise our sights if we look to those who have gone before. We could do worse than Benjamin Franklin.