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Abraham Lincoln Did Not Invent Facebook: How a Guy and His Blog Fooled the Whole Wide Internet

Nate St. Pierre's web-friendly adventures with Honest Abe were literally too good to be true.

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Brian Fung

It started with a headline I saw pinging around Twitter yesterday afternoon. Abraham Lincoln, my friends' tweets informed me, had invented a 19th-century version of Facebook.

Yes! This previously unknown tidbit, it turns out, was the discovery of a guy in Milwaukee who had happened to take a day off work -- and then happened (serendipity!) to visit a circus graveyard in Delavan, Wisconsin -- and then happened (serendipity again!) to visit the Lincoln Library in Springfield, Illinois -- and then happened (serendipity some more!) to discover that Mr. Lincoln had once filed a patent application for a newspaper that would, via profiles and updates, "keep People aware of Others in the Town."

Such a great find. So it was fitting and entirely unsurprising that the post announcing the big discovery, as it sped around the Internet yesterday afternoon, got more than 4,000 likes on Facebook and 30,000 views overall -- this despite spending over an hour offline as it crashed its host servers. How could it not get attention? Abe Lincoln, pretty much inventing Facebook!

But also, wait a second: Abe Lincoln, pretty much inventing Facebook?

I called David Blanchette at the Lincoln Library. Was there any way this story could really be true? In short: no. "This is a complete hoax," Blanchette told me. The existence of the Springfield Gazette as a proto-profile page? "Spurious." The picture of Lincoln at the top of said publication? "They didn't run pictures in newspapers back then." The library's help in making the serendipitous discovery? "We had nothing to do with it."

Well, gah. This was such a good story. You wanted it to be true -- not just as a fun fact, or as an easy Internet Shareable, or as a reminder of the psychic continuity between past and present, or as a Campbellian lesson of the banality of heroism, or as a Buellerian tale of the obvious productivity of truancy ... but also because, I mean, Lincoln inventing Facebook. There is nothing that is not awesome about that. 

And adding to the appeal of the whole thing was the fact that the discoverer in question -- Nate St. Pierre, blogger -- could have been any of us. Here's a guy who took a day away from his normal responsibilities to wander and wonder and go where the wind and his car would take him. And he found something amazing, something that would change -- just a little bit -- how we think about history.

Ditch work, and discover! This is a moral we can all get behind!

Because of all that, you wanted not just to believe the story, but to trust the guy who was telling it to you. Who was a real person, with a real voice, with a real Internet identity, operating under the auspices of a real narrative. "You guys are gonna love this story," he told us, confidently.

And why should we doubt it? Why would someone go out of his way to spread lies?

Well, first of all: for the lulz. Nate St. Pierre is a prankster by nature, he told me, and "I just wanted to have a little fun -- and cause a little chaos."

St. Pierre, it turns out, is something of a serial imp. (Remember that guy who successfully hijacked Fast Company's infamous Influence Project? Yep: St. Pierre.) And this time around, the fun/chaos started, as it so often does, with a bad day on Monday. Come the evening of the 7th, St. Pierre says, "I was crabby; I was in a bad mood; I was tired of looking around at all the boring, lame stuff online -- all the same people rehashing the same things." He enjoys writing, so he took to his computer "to write something that would be exciting to read." He started crafting a sensational story that would tell the tale of the epic day St. Pierre wished he'd just had -- revisionist history meets personalized fanfic. "So I thought, 'Okay, what would be just fun and crazy?' What if Lincoln invented Facebook?"

Starting with that fun and crazy and also totally false premise, St. Pierre spun the rest of the tale of his alt-universe adventure. He wrote the story in bed, from 9:30 in the evening to 2:30 in the morning, impelled by the catharsis and amused by the absurdity of it all. Lincoln inventing Facebook! So ridiculous!

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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