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Benjamin Franklin as the social network genius of his time? Yes, says one Stanford scholar

Stanford historian Caroline Winterer says 18th-century polymath Benjamin Franklin’s sizable social network and endless curiosity make him relatable to our networked world today.

Image credit: Steve Castillo

The 18th century may not come to mind in a conversation about social networks. But Stanford historian Caroline Winterer sees the period as the first age that witnessed extensive communication among people across the world.

Hand-written letters were the social media posts of that time, and a new social platform of the era was the United States Postal Service.

Benjamin Franklin, a founder of the USPS, was at the center of that increased communication. Franklin, well known as one of the country’s founders and for his early experiments with electricity, also invented practical objects such as bifocals, among many other achievements.

But what made him especially stand out is the size of his social network and his endless curiosity, according to Winterer, the Anthony P. Meier Family Professor in the Humanities.

“Franklin knew he would be nothing without the people around him,” said Winterer, who is also director of the Stanford Humanities Center. “That’s something we can all learn from today.”

Over the past decade, Winterer has dived into the depths of Franklin’s mind by examining thousands of his letters. During his lifetime, Franklin sent and received somewhere around 20,000 letters.

Winterer recently talked about her research in a lecture titled “The Remarkable Genius of Benjamin Franklin.” Her latest book on the American Enlightenment discusses the role of Americans in the social network revolution during the 18th century. This year also marks 275 years since Franklin helped to found the American Philosophical Society, the oldest learned society in the United States.

Stanford News Service interviewed Winterer about her research on Franklin.