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1. The Social Network

Crowds walking to the Hemlock Fair, ca. 1900

Crowds walking to the Hemlock Fair, ca. 1900. Sheffield Peabody first mentions attending a fair at "Slab City," the earlier name of Hemlock, on 17 September 1858. Although this scene appears to depict a simpler time, it's shaped by complex, interrelated networks: transportation like roads and railroads (the Lehigh station is just behind the mill); communications like newpapers and the telephone lines overhead; and most invisibly, the social networks drawing people together for this event. (Photo courtesy of Douglas Morgan)

Ever since David Fincher’s 2010 film The Social Network, but probably well before then, it has become difficult to think of online institutions like Facebook in a straightforward way. In the movie’s final scene, for example, the act of friending signals not just the banishment of a former lover to digital limbo, but a sort of rupture in the whole structure of reality itself—individual identities become profiles and communities become reified networks. It’s a pretty familiar critique of social networks, and is premised on the idea that some state of organic wholeness existed prior to The Fall.

It comes as a surprise, then, to behold the complexity of 19th-century Springwater society through a single node: Sheffield Peabody. Similar to the Friend Lists and “levels” of friendship we see on Facebook—close friends, acquaintances, and those restricted to one’s public profile—he interacted with different people for different purposes. Another way to state it is that communities demand their members enact many different functions, from the material necessities of living to the ineffable properties of cohesion and civic “spirit.” This exhibit outlines four such purpose-specific networks, and only begins to suggest the intricate exchange of information during Sheffield’s time. When he “went to the valley,” how many of his social interactions were planned in advance? How did local Springwater networks interact with national events and newsfeeds? Why do Sheffield’s three- or four-sentence diary entries so often hover around 140 characters, as if sending tweets to the future?

1. The Social Network