Whither yon trolls should sit, their backs to the paper’s pillared bridge; / Waiting thus with patience kept, to call Wordsworth “ye bitch.”
About the year 1700, in London and other spots in the West, there was a lot of excitement about a new mode of communication, where information came so rapidly that people imagined they were interacting with each other in a virtual space. Fueled by new technologies of cheap paper-making and mass printing, and enabled by laws that permitted the spread of information, hundreds of newspapers, broadsheets, magazines, and little bound books were suddenly on offer. In this world of print, people could interact freely on topics ranging from politics to winemaking to books they liked. There were many names for that imagined space, and one really good one that eventually emerged was the beautiful-sounding phrase, the republic of letters.
For the people of this time, the word “republic” was understood in its original Latin meaning—literally “thing” belonging to the “people”—but in an age of ever-stronger monarchies, the word had a sense of rebellion and subversion to it, too. As some modern social historians, such as Jurgen Habermas, have said, the imagined democracy of talkers eventually produced actual ones. But these virtual spaces also invited all sorts of ways to waste time, share rumors about celebrities, and make nasty comments about other members of this republic. In other words, this was the beginning of the internet