TIME Culture

Christmas Cards Were America’s First Social Media

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Before we posted our family Christmas photo on Facebook, we mailed images of our idealized selves and lives to the people we loved

My great-grandmother, who was born in the 1880s, passed away when I was about 11 years old. Looking back, it is fairly obvious now that she was a hoarder on a colossal scale, but since this predated reality television, we tended just to say she was a packrat. As we cleaned out her house in rural Missouri, there was something special waiting: two boxes brimming with postcards. These were not of the “wish you were here” variety depicting washed-out hotel swimming pools and palm-tree-lined boulevards. These were older, more elaborate—variously embossed, gilded, tinseled, and extravagantly colored. They were greetings for birthdays and anniversaries, tokens of affection and romantic overture, and happy returns for every holiday on the calendar. Christmas, especially.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my great-grandmother’s collection would give me a window into the desires—and anxieties—of a world I would only later come to understand and appreciate as I pursued my doctorate in American history. Until I embarked on that journey, the cards often sat in the back of closets or under piles of other accumulated stuff. Still, every so often, I’d take them out, dust them off, and wonder at them anew. Once my long nights of historical study began, I returned to them more and more often, until they finally set me on a path of becoming a scholar of American holidays and culture, including the phenomenon of holiday postcards.

It turns out there was a good reason my ancestor had piles and piles of these rectangular cardboard artifacts. For a few years in the early 20th century, postcards were a massive phenomenon. Billions of postcards flowed through the mail, and billions more were bought and put into albums and boxes. And amid that prodigious output, holiday postcards were one of the most popular types, with Christmas reigning supreme, just as it had in my inherited collection.

The practice of sending Christmas cards pre-dated the broader postcard craze by several decades, largely thanks to the efforts of Louis Prang. Prang was a savvy printing entrepreneur who kept adding products and lithographic techniques to his ever-expanding business, including the introduction of Christmas greeting cards (perhaps at his wife’s suggestion) in 1875. By the 1880s he was publishing more than 5 million holiday cards each year. And once postcards fell out of favor, greeting card companies like American Greetings and Hallmark rushed in to fill the void. But for a few short years between 1907 and 1910, Christmas postcards created a visual conversation between Americans that was unique because it was also very public. They were in many ways a forerunner of today’s impulse to post selfies and holiday pictures on social media. Unlike a greeting card or letter that hides its contents within an envelope, a postcard was always on display—from the rack in the drugstore where it might be purchased to its final destination. And those billions of snowy landscapes and bag-toting Santas churning through the mail system—the Rural Free Delivery system in particular—revealed much of what was on people’s minds at the height of the Progressive Era.

Take mistletoe, for example. Mistletoe had long been part of the Christmas tradition, with young men using sprigs of the plant to claim the right to demand or steal a kiss. Yet this was an era when women were asking serious questions about their rights and questioning the assumed passivity of their lives in everything from courtship and marriage to education and work. This is why so many postcards feature a woman who has taken control of mistletoe, deciding when and where it will be hung, and when she will choose to be under it and for whom. Sure, the rowdy, sprig-wielding young man still shows up in Christmas postcards, but now he must contend with the “New Woman” who uses mistletoe as part of her new right to take the initiative.

Rural landscapes are another good example. On the surface, nothing seems particularly unusual about a Christmas greeting that features a little snow-covered house in the countryside. That sort of mythologized ideal has been around since before the Civil War, when Currier and Ives capitalized on rural nostalgia with their inexpensive prints. Still, rural and small-town America was far from a contented place in the first decade of the 20th century. Farm children seemed to be fleeing to cities in droves, with 1910 marking the last census of a majority-rural American population.

One reason billions of Christmas postcards circulated with nary a cityscape to be seen is that rural Americans were circulating an idealized vision of themselves. When times seemed tough, all those picture-perfect fields, barns, fences, and country homes became a way to create an alternative narrative—one that was beautiful, healthy, and prosperous. One could argue this instinct shares significant DNA with the practice of staging family photographs for Christmas cards, or for today’s Facebook postings. There is something comforting and empowering about controlling the visual elements of a holiday greeting to your friends and family. Those visuals are not just representing you but a perfected version of you, and your world.

These were also the years when the United States saw the peak of European immigration, particularly immigrants from Southern and Eastern European nations like Russia, Lithuania, Italy, and Greece. Partly as a reaction to this inflow, and its surrounding anxieties, people were eager to emphasize their longstanding roots in the country, as if to say “we came here generations ago, not yesterday.” Manifestations of this urge to claim native roots pop up in the period’s genealogical societies, colonial revival movements, and yes, holidays. An “Old Fashioned Christmas” is a phrase that appears with increasing regularity through the first two decades of the 20th century. It is also a repeated theme in Christmas postcards with plenty of “ye olden time” imagery of colonial homesteads, spinning wheels, lanterns, rocking chairs, muskets, and horse-drawn coaches.

The postcard fad ended when the best postcards—which were printed in Germany using superior lithographic techniques—were priced out of the market by a newly passed tariff in 1909. By 1910, interest was waning as American firms failed to produce postcards of equal quality. World War I put the final nail in the coffin. Yet whereas Halloween or Thanksgiving greeting cards never took off the way their postcard predecessors had, Christmas cards have remained an American tradition, if now dressed up in an envelope. Always a mirror of the times, popular Christmas card styles included Art Deco in the 1920s and patriotic cards during World War II.

Looking back, however, there was something distinctive about the old postcards. They put it all out there—hopes, dreams, worries, excitement, wonder, fear, pride, and more—for store clerks and mailmen, nosy neighbors and family members to see and read.

Certainly I wonder how my great-grandmother’s network of cousins, friends, and her future husband (who sent her plenty of courting postcards, including a few mistletoes of his own) picked the cards they sent. What appealed to them and why? As a kid my answer would have been “because they look cool,” but as a cultural historian I now look deeper for what might like beneath the surface. Like so many others who gravitated to postcards with an almost forceful passion, she was a young rural girl from a long line of rural Americans who saw the world changing quickly. Postcards were a way of dealing with those changes, some welcome I’m sure, and many not. Still, I do agree with my younger self … they were and remain pretty darn cool.

Daniel Gifford is the manager of Museum Advisory Committees at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. His first book, American Holiday Postcards 1905-1915: Imagery and Context, was published by McFarland Press in 2013. He wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a partnership of the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square. Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Social Media

U.S. Teens Are Deserting Facebook Faster Than Ever

Brendan O'Sullivan—Getty Images

Prefer social media with more youthful user bases, like Snapchat and Twitter

U.S. teenagers increasingly think Facebook is like, whatever.

A new report has found that Americans aged 13 to 17 who use social media are leaving Facebook faster than ever, with the percentage of those with accounts dropping six points from 94% last year to 88% in 2014. From 2012 to 2013, it only dropped one point.

This is not the first time analysts have reported a drop in Facebook’s popularity among teenagers, and the company’s co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has gone on the record saying he’s skeptical of their claims. “Based on our data, that’s simply not true,” he said last year.

If the numbers aren’t growing in that demographic, Zuckerberg added, that’s only because the site is already so deeply engrained in the life of the American teenager that there’s nowhere to grow.

The group behind the new report, Frank N. Magid Associates Inc., found that teens are spending more time on messaging apps and even Twitter, which now boasts 48% engagement in that age group.

Part of their attraction to newer services like Snapchat and messaging apps are their youthful user base. After all, with parents and even grandparents on the social network, no wonder teens are saying thanks but no thanks to Mark Zuckerberg’s friend request.


TIME Travel

Twitter Laments the Certain ‘Ruin’ of Havana by Tourists

Thanks, Obama

Moments after President Obama announced Wednesday that the U.S. would begin restoring relationships with Cuba, which includes loosening the existing travel ban, the perpetual curmudgeons of the Twitterverse declared Havana in all its exclusive, un-commercialized glory officially over. Don’t even think about going there now, some users griped. And if you do, get there literally right now because hipsters are definitely going to ruin it.

Havana, so it seems, according to Twitter, will soon go the way of Brooklyn and the countless other cities effectively ruined by well-meaning yuppies and fanny-pack-donning tourists, who heard great things about a place from their one cool and/or worldly cousin on Facebook.

Take this as a fair warning. Book your flights now before the Starbucks, J.Crew, and McDonald’s pop up.

Others, however, were a bit more upbeat about the potential for more Americans to experience Cuba firsthand.

TIME Social Media

Facebook Will Now Help Your Photos Look Way Better

Facebook Auto-Enhance Photos
Thanasak Wanichpan—flickr Editorial/Getty Images

Auto-enhance feature coming to mobile apps

Ever wanted to upload a photo to Facebook from your phone, but the lighting was way off?

Facebook is adding an auto-enhance feature to its mobile apps, giving users the option to use a sliding bar to adjust photos before they upload them, TechCrunch reports. The new feature builds on Facebook’s previous enhancing capabilities, which were limited to unadjustable filters.

Facebook is the latest tech platform to make photo editing more convenient and personalized. Instagram, which launched five new filters this week, made a big change in June when the Facebook-owned photo-sharing community unveiled sliding bars to adjust the intensity of each filter. Apple’s iOS 8, released in September, also took a step towards fast photo editing when it included basic color and light editing on its default Photos app.


TIME celebrities

Angelina Jolie Has a Cyber-Security Team Monitoring Her Kids’ Internet Use

2014 Variety Screening Series - "Difret" Screening
Executive producer Angelina Jolie attends the 2014 Variety Screening Series of "Difret" at ArcLight Hollywood on December 9, 2014 in Hollywood, California. Alberto E. Rodriguez—Getty Images

She says she and husband Brad Pitt, who don't use social media, "wouldn't even know what to look for."

Angelina Jolie describes herself as “old-school” when it comes to technology, preferring to write things down instead of posting them on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram — none of which she uses.

But the Hollywood star may not be able to ask the same of her six children, which is why she tells People magazine in its latest cover story that she and husband Brad Pitt have hired a cyber-security team to monitor their Internet usage and exposure.

“It’s so beyond what we understand,” Jolie says. “We wouldn’t even know what to look for.”

Read more at People

TIME Social Media

Nordstrom Employee Fired Over Racially Charged Facebook Post

The post advocated that white police officers be killed in response to killings of unarmed black men

A Nordstrom employee in Portland, Ore. was fired Tuesday after a post appeared on his personal Facebook profile stating that white police officers should be killed.

Aaron Hodges, a sales associate for the retailer, seemed to be addressing the ongoing protests that have erupted around the country following a series of killings of unarmed black men, according to Portland NBC affiliate KGW.

“Instead of slamming the police, I prefer a Kenny Fort approach,” the post on Hodges’ Facebook profile read. “Every time an unarmed black man is killed, you kill a decorated white officer, on his door step in front of his family.”

Hodges’ Facebook and Twitter profiles have since been taken down, according to KGW. Following a backlash against the comments online, Nordstrom confirmed on Twitter that Hodges no longer works for the company.

In a statement, a Nordstrom spokeswoman said the company does not tolerate violent conversation or threats of any kind. “What our former employee chose to post from his personal account does not in any way reflect our views as a company,” the spokeswoman said.


TIME Pakistan

This Is What the World Had to Say About the Peshawar School Attack

An attack on a school in Pakistan has left more than 131 dead, most of them children

World leaders and prominent politicians and diplomats united to condemn the actions of the Taliban who’ve claimed responsibility for the attack on a Peshawar school on Tuesday that left more than 131 people dead, mostly school children. Six Taliban gunmen attacked the school and were eventually killed by Pakistani security forces.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Shari, released a statement saying, “The government together with the army has started [a military operation called] Zarb-e-Azb and it will continue until the terrorism is rooted out from our land. We also have had discussions with Afghanistan that they and we together fight this terrorism, and this fight will continue. No one should have any doubt about it.” Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani released a statement that said, “The killing of innocent children is contrary to Islam.”

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi took to Twitter to condemn the attack:

And Kailash Satyarthi, the Indian child rights activist who shared this year’s Nobel Peace Prize with Malala Yousafzai, also tweeted:

The U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Richard Olson, said in a statement, “The United States strongly condemns senseless and inhumane attacks on innocent students and educators, and stands in solidarity with the people of Pakistan, and all who fight the menace of terrorism. Few have suffered more at the hands of terrorists and extremists than the people of Pakistan.”

Government leaders, prominent figures and celebrities from around the globe also took to social media to condemn the attacks:

Malala Yousafzai, the teenager who was shot in the head by the Taliban for championing girls education in 2012, also joined the condemnation of the attack. The 17-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner, released a statement saying:

“I am heartbroken by this senseless and cold-blooded act of terror in Peshawar that is unfolding before us. Innocent children in their school have no place in horror such as this. I condemn these atrocious and cowardly acts and stand united with the government and armed forces of Pakistan whose efforts so far to address this horrific event are commendable. I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters – but we will never be defeated.”

Malala now lives in Birmingham, England.

TIME Social Media

Why a Facebook ‘Sympathize’ Button Is a Terrible Idea

Facebook Dislike, Sympathize, Like Button
A view of Facebook's "Like" button May 10, 2012 in Washington, DC. Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images

It would reduce our empathy to a click

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg isn’t too keen on adding a “Dislike” button to the service, he said in a Q&A event Thursday. But Zuckerberg did float the idea of a new button for “sad moments” when pressing “Like” just doesn’t feel right. That’s why Facebook engineers recently toyed with a Sympathize button, a concept well-received by Facebook’s staff as well as the larger public.

But Facebook hasn’t implemented “Sympathize” yet. It’s still thinking about “the right way” to go about adding such a feature, Zuckerberg said, leaving users hanging. What’s taking so long?

It could be because implementing another Facebook button is a terrible idea — particularly to represent an emotion deeper than “Like.”

Ever since the Like button launched in 2009, the blue thumbs-up icon has become a symbol recognizable by nearly anyone who’s used the Internet. But the Like button’s mega-popularity also resulted in something that wasn’t so stellar: Like Anxiety, which strikes when your posts aren’t getting as many Likes as you think they deserve. While the Like button has made it easier to quickly express emotion on Facebook, Like Anxiety has turned the platform into a popularity contest and insecurity hotbed.

Now try imagining posting about something emotionally crippling — say, the passing of a loved one — and not getting enough “Sympathize” clicks. While most of us can get over when a positive post’s Likes plateau too soon, it would be far harder to move past our sadder missives getting Sympathy-snubbed. Hitting Sympathize is literally the least your friends could do for you in your time of need. If they didn’t click, that would feel pretty awful — you might even start checking which of your friends hit “Sympathize” and which didn’t bother, which wouldn’t be healthy for your friendships.

Facebook’s core mission, as Zuckerberg has put it, is promoting meaningful communications. That goal helps explain why Facebook Messenger was pushed into its own standalone mobile app and why disabling read receipts isn’t an option. Both moves are meant to encourage us to respond to our friends more quickly.

But if Facebook adds a Sympathize button, it would actually make our conversations less meaningful. How? It would override the only way to currently express sympathy on Facebook: Writing a personal comment to a friend, even if it’s only a few words.

The reality, then, is that ‘Sympathize’ is already on Facebook. So is “Dislike.” And “Love.” And “Thanks” — and any other emotion. They’re just not buttons. You have to write those emotions out yourself, and that surely means more than any button ever could.

TIME Social Media

I Harassed My Colleague on Twitter and Here’s What Happened

The Twitter logo is displayed on a mobile device. Bethany Clarke—Getty Images

Taking Twitter's updated reporting tool out for a spin

A few weeks ago, someone called Taylor Swift and me a “dumb b*tch” on Twitter.

On the one hand, I was flattered that he called us a single “dumb b*tch,” because it implies a unified b*tchhood between me and Taylor. On the other hand, nobody calls Taylor Swift a dumb b*tch and gets away with it. So I decided this gentleman’s missive was a good time to test Twitter’s new harassment reporting tool.

The new tool is designed to be much simpler to use than the old reporting method, and it is. The process is streamlined and quick, the menu options are clear, and Twitter responds efficiently to let you know they’ve received your report. What isn’t as clear, however, is what exactly happens to a user who is reported for harassment.

When I reported the Taylor-hater, I quickly got an email from Twitter saying: “This is a confirmation that we’ve received your request. Someone from our team will review it and reply to you shortly.” So far, so good! But what was happening to the honorable wordsmith himself?

Wracked with curiosity, I asked my noble colleague Olivia to help me out. I tweeted at her “U suck,” and asked her to report me for harassment. She did, and she got the same email I did. “They’re investigating it!,” she exclaimed.

Olivia soon received an email saying that my tweet was “currently not violating the Twitter Rules.” So tweeting “U suck” isn’t enough to get you in trouble on Twitter, even if someone reports it as harassment. That seemed like a fair safeguard against haphazard harassment reporting or hyper-sensitive whining.

But it also meant I had to up my game as a harasser.

First, with Olivia’s permission, I called her a “dumb b*tch,” using a decoy account I set up for the purpose. Then — and this I’m not proud of — I said “I’m going to kill you.” Olivia had to warn her mother this was happening so she wouldn’t be alarmed.

The “dumb b*tch” comment provoked no immediate response from Twitter. But the death threat was handled quickly; my (decoy) account was suspended within the day. In other words, Twitter thinks calling someone a “dumb b*tch” is the same as saying “u suck.”

Or, as Taylor puts it: Haters gonna hate, hate, hate hate hate.

I realized I needed a wider variety of harassment options to truly test the response, since there’s a whole lot of ugly in-between insults and death threats. But since my decoy account was already suspended for threatening Olivia’s life, I had to make a whole new account, which I promptly used to harass myself online in increasingly violent and disturbing ways. I can’t embed the tweets (because my account was suspended,) but they said:

“I know you live in Brooklyn and work at Time and your email is [my email address]”

“I hate all Jews including you”

“I hope you die in your sleep”

Charming, right? I reported each of these tweets and others like them to Twitter. That very night, my decoy account was suspended. I could not tweet, my tweets disappeared from my other (real) feed, and I couldn’t change any part of my profile. I couldn’t even embed the tweets (which is why they’re typed out above.)

So from this (very unscientific) experiment, it appears there are two things that will get you quickly suspended from Twitter: death threats and repeated harassment. Some kinds of hate speech against women (“dumb b*tch”) don’t appear to have any consequences. One self-harassment tweet in which I called myself a “C-word” was eventually flagged by Twitter, but by that point, the decoy account had already been suspended.

It seems, then, that Twitter’s new streamlined harassment policy is pretty sane, considering the enormity of the problem its trying to solve — thousands of nasty missives get tweeted every day. It makes sense that Twitter doesn’t suspend people for tweeting things like “u suck,” while it immediately responds to allegations of violence or to repeated harassment. But Twitter hasn’t figured out where to draw the line on non-violent harassment, especially against women, and multiple requests to Twitter Communications to get some explanation were not returned.

A few days after running this experiment, I got an email from Twitter Support about my report on the Taylor Swift tweet. Apparently, calling someone a “dumb b*tch” is “currently not violating the Twitter Rules” — even if that person is Taylor Swift herself.

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