In the 18th century, a new sense of "the public" emerged. There were many reasons for this, but high among them was the emergence of mass media. Sure, printing had been around since the mid-15th century, but it was in the 1700s that printing was both frequent and cheap enough for literally hundreds of thousands of people to be regularly consuming the same content tied closely to current events. This is the time when periodicals emerged and when newspapers began to take off.
|London coffee houses were|
vital social centers in the 18th century
When it is actually possible to be simultaneously informed about things on a massive scale, it had to change the kinds of conversation that people had, and the way they thought about others. And when you add to that the frequency of publication -- well, it suddenly became possible (and then expected) to be current. "Current events" didn't exist before there was a means for tracking them -- at least not in any meaningful sense. A mass medium gets calibrated to the present in a way printing never was oriented previously. Or, to put it another way, the present became something measurable and distinct, tied to the cycles of news and publishing and more so than to the seasons, festivals, and church calendars that united people previously.
We mostly think of mass media in terms of the big broadcast media of the 20th century. If so, it may be a mistake to call printing a mass medium in the 18th century, since the print medium had much more in common with the 21st century blogosphere than with 20th century radio or television. This is due to how 18th century information circulated and the highly participatory nature of the medium. The early newspaper or periodical was not a broadcast medium; it was a social vehicle.
People participated in 18th century print culture in two vital ways: by gathering together in small public groups to consume and respond to content coming from the weekly or daily presses; and by contributing content on a scale never before attempted.
As for the first mode of participation, consider the coffee house (in England) or the salon (in France). These informal gathering places became enormously popular -- helped in part by improved urban conditions, the growth of shops and shopping among the middle class, and by imports like chocolate. Yes, people found great pleasure in gathering in the counterpart to today's Starbucks to sip a cup of their favorite beverage and share opinions about the latest edition of The Rambler or The Spectator.
The Enlightenment, which came to fruition in the 18th century, took place in part due to the massive spread of a participatory medium, which was printing that had grown into periodical publishing in large urban areas. There were not so many controls on content in those periodicals as there would later be. It was all about social participation on a grand scale.
If our day compares to the Enlightenment, will the worlds of computing and networks usher us into new political arrangements the way that the printing press sustained experiments in democracy? Are we warming up to a more direct mode of democracy, setting aside some aspects of a representative system? Whatever we are headed for politically, we know that the new media are becoming big players in the outcome.