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.
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!
Really, he says, "I just wanted something that would make me smile."
But St. Pierre, in addition to being a writer, is also an entrepreneur -- one who, after previous efforts at site-starting and digital philanthropy, is about to launch a new web consultancy service. It occurred to him that publishing the Lincoln story, faux warts and all, could be a convenient way to get some publicity for the new gig -- one whose success will rely on St. Pierre's ability to prove that he "gets" the Internet. It'd be a fun (and chaotic) experiment: an illustration not just of the web's virality, but also of its often awkward relationship with veracity. And a way, as well, to demonstrate the underlying ethos of the Internet: "If you just have creativity and a blog, you can be powerful."
So, yesterday morning, St. Pierre tweeted the Lincoln story, then DMed its link to a couple of friends. (The message: "Hey, want to have some fun with the Internet today? ;)") And from there, he says, it just spread. Not just among his friends, but up to the highest and most amplifying echelons of the Internet. The post shot to Reddit and Fark and Hacker News and Forbes and ZDNET and The Next Web. Guy Kawasawki tweeted it. Jason Kottke linked it. The Internet really, really, really liked this story.
Despite that, though -- and, more likely, because of it -- the Internet didn't stop, at first, to ask whether the story was actually true. "Web people especially, but even news sources, will fall all over themselves to be first," St. Pierre says -- "especially on something cool, especially on something tech, especially on something that's in the news that combines a couple interesting famous people. They'll share first and answer questions later. And by the time anyone knows it's not real, it's too late."
And while a hoaxer may not be the most deserving didact on the subject of Internet Verification, St. Pierre's criticisms proved all too true in this case. He expected -- and banked on -- the web's virality, he says; he didn't anticipate, though, how eagerly that web's self-defined news sources would pass along his "discovery." And he assumed people would figure out the story's hoaxiness much more quickly than they actually did.
For one thing, St. Pierre says of the Lincoln yarn, "I made it easy to debunk." He purposely dropped clues to his pranksterism, he says, throughout the post. These ranged from the subtle -- the word "story" in the post's opening lines, the framing around "Honest Abe," the multiple circuitous references to P.T. Barnum, he of "sucker born every minute" fame -- to the more obvious: the blurry image of the Springfield Gazette. That image's not-at-all-blurry photo of a young President Lincoln. The patent application's discrepant dates. The multiple winky emoticons studded throughout the post. The fact that, if you think about it, it is really actually highly unlikely that "Abe Lincoln Filed a Patent for Facebook in 1845."
But also: Did you hear that Abe Lincoln filed a patent for Facebook in 1845? It's so almost believable -- and you can't not want to share that with pretty much everyone you know. The ask for forgiveness, not permission mentality has many manifestations -- in news, as everywhere else. "The one thing that surprised me about this," St. Pierre says, "was all the big-name publications that just ran with it, without even checking anything." While some of the bigger outlets' stories have now been updated with "oh, actually, this is a hoax" acknowledgements -- or simply been scrubbed entirely -- others have kept the story as-is, barely acknowledging its falsity.
So while the Internet, today, is disappointed in St. Pierre ... St. Pierre, for his part, is sort of disappointed in the Internet. We now have a thing that lets us, just as "Honest Abe" wanted, "keep aware of Others in the Town." How we use that thing, though, is up to us. "I just think this is fun; I don't think it hurts anybody," St. Pierre says of his prank. At the same time, though, "people have this willing suspension of disbelief," he notes. And with people and outlets constantly racing to find the newest and shiniest and share-iest thing on the web, "you can take advantage of that if you want."