When the Big T and I attended a wedding on New Year’s Eve, it didn’t take long before photos of the event started to appear on guests’ FaceBook and Twitter feeds — including mine.
At this particular wedding, there was no “official” photographer; instead guests captured the event on their smartphones or cameras, then shared widely,with much tagging, liking and commenting.
It’s an often-made criticism of social media that platforms like FaceBook, Instagram and Twitter are filled with the minutiae of people’s lives; cute pet moments, a new dress or shoes, meals and drinks — what, where and with whom. Events — from kids’ play-dates to weddings — are photographed and shared with friends, family and followers around the world.
For some, this is over-sharing. Too much content spilling, uncensored, into too many other lives. And when we compare this very public exposure of everyday life to how (and with whom) we shared memories even fifteen years ago, it does seem that social media has provided a brand new platform for the public dissemination of trivia.
But it’s not really new. Lately, I’ve been reading newspaper social columns from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. For a country with a very small population, New Zealand had a surprisingly large number of newspapers for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many of these have been digitised as part of a project called Papers Past, managed by the National Library of New Zealand.
While social columns I’ve seen in more contemporary newspapers seem to focus on major events and on celebrities or prominent people, these earlier papers covered not only the major touchstones in people’s lives — like weddings — but also much less momentous events; parties, kitchen teas, even people visiting friends and family, or going on holiday.
Accessing this very large and easily searchable archive of newspapers has proved really useful in helping me research my son’s paternal ancestry. The article below, about the marriage of two of the Gray sisters in 1920, has helped confirm familial relationships and put faces to names in the wedding photograph above.
But more than that, the social columns have provided insight into the millieu in which ancestors existed — much as FaceBook, Instagram etc. do today. Sports club memberships, community involvement, even golfing victories and assertions of various ancestors’ “popularity” and attractiveness were all reported — not to mention (sometimes very detailed) descriptions of the women’s clothing.
Thus I know that the bridesmaids in the photo above were wearing dresses of “vieux rose” (a sort of dusky pink) and “heliotrope” (a pinkish-purple). FaceBook of course, would have provided me with photos, but given variation in lighting and camera quality, these may or not have represented the colours accurately.
The newspapers were also remarkably candid in reporting people’s whereabouts; presumably with their knowledge and consent. For example …
“Mrs F. G. M. Raymond (Beverley Road) left yesterday on a visit to her mother …”
… seems to my jaded twenty-first century sensibilities practically an invitation to burglars. Most people I know are quite cautious about sharing holiday posts and photos on their social media accounts while they are still away, but perhaps folks were more honest in those days.
Perhaps the biggest difference between old and new is in who decides what is newsworthy.
While I’ve identified a number of ancestors in the Christchurch area during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, only a few families appear in the newspaper social columns. They lived in the Hororata area and would probably be termed “prominent” families.
Whether on FaceBook or in old-fashioned print, newsworthiness is socially constructed. The difference is that the social columns were created by third-parties; journalists operating in a commercial environment, with time, space and social constraints. In the press, news is what sells papers (and advertising).
By comparison, anyone with a social media account can make their own news — and anyone whose friends or family have an account can, willingly or not, become part of that news.