Why the next big thing already happened

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A novel innovation
We have no idea what the world looked like before Louis Daguerre invented a way to capture images on light-sensitive copper plates and revealed his daguerreotype process in 1839. Studios sprung up almost immediately to put it to use though, of the millions of daguerreotypes produced, the vast majority were portraits, not landscapes. Capturing an image of a loved one or friend took time: A subject had to be positioned just right, then the pose held motionless while the plates were treated with chemicals, exposed to natural light, and then treated again. Oddly enough, the few early images of city streets that survive are devoid of any people whatsoever, as exposure times of up to 10 minutes rendered any movement invisible. But the process worked for portraits and people couldn't get enough of them.

Portraiture became even more common as easier and faster paper-based photographic processes were invented, which also made copying images possible. By the 1850s, small portraits called carte de vistes were commonly shared when visiting family or friends. An international standard was created for size so they were sure to fit in albums, which then were proudly displayed on coffee tables, and the sheer volume of production priced the cards within reach of the masses (though also they were popular with royalty, as Queen Victoria compiled more than 100 albums.)

How to find "the next big thing" by looking back

George K. Warren was a young photographer based outside Boston and an early adopter of the new technology, and he dreamt up a novel innovation: Why not assemble photo albums for graduating college students? Such "yearbooks" would require many portraits, multiple prints, and the business would recur annually. The idea was a hit and by the early 1860s Warren (and others) were plying their trade at schools along the Eastern seaboard. He'd go on to produce a half-million portraits over the next two decades or so, producing as many as 15,000 prints for single class alone!

The first Facebook
A brief analysis of how Warren pulled together yearbooks for Rutgers College, New Jersey, in 1860 is illustrative of the phenomenon. He'd first find a student representative who'd be his point man and then, through the kid, get students to sign up for a book and designate which of their teachers and classmates they wanted included. Students would pose for the pictures, choosing angles that they felt best portrayed their personalities (in some respects a precursor to the modern social network shots taken from the height an outstretched arm can reach, cast down at an angle on faces overcome with arched eyebrows and pouty mouths). The photos would be distributed to the subjects, who'd write personal notes next to them, and then the pages assembled in the order designated by the owner.

In fact, as user-directed assemblages of friends, you could easily qualify these books as facebooks, though in an analog medium and a different place and time.

We have much in common with the students who were thus immortalized in chemical and paper. America in the 1860s was a period of terrific economic, social, and technological upheaval, as industrialization and capitalism began to reshape our economy from agrarian and cottage industries to urban living and mass production. Waves of religious revivalism and spiritualism washed across the landscape, changing the way people felt about themselves and their world. The Civil War would kill many thousands and displace many more.

It was a time of change and uncertainty. Just like ours.

So it's not surprising that college grads wanted to capture a time in their lives with facebooks. The Rutgers book, now in the collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, belonged to a man named George Washington McNeel, a Texas native who would return home and subsequently get his head blown off during the war. The notes his friends wrote to him on their facebook pages were personal and very telling, noting the dangers of the times and their hopes that friendship would overcome the ravages that were sure to come.