Before Wikipedia, before blogs, before comment areas or message boards, before the Internet—hell, before the mass adoption of indoor plumbing—readers were generating valuable content.
I stumbled across this historical fact while reading Thomas C. Leonard's 1995 book, News for All: America's Coming-of-Age With the Press. He writes, "When Americans chose the news, they were often not simply thinking of stories they wished to read; they were thinking of another reader."
Leonard's example is the Boston News-Letter, first published in 1704. Its proprietor, John Campbell, deliberately left blank space in its pages so subscribers could annotate and otherwise append their ideas and "news" to the newspaper. These amendments weren't aimless jottings, either. Newspapers were routinely shared after purchase, and the notes readers added in the spaces and margins were designed to edify the friend or acquaintance the reader next forwarded his paper to.
Nor was Campbell the first to reserve such a space for readers in his pages. In 1696, British publisher Ichabod Dawks left blank space in his pages for readers to supplement the words he printed. The first edition of Dawks's News Letter, dated Aug. 4, 1696, told readers, "This letter will be done upon good writing-paper, and blank spaces left that any gentleman may write his own private business." Historian of journalism Frank Mott notes that America's first newspaper, Publick Occurrences, which printed just one edition in 1690 before being shuttered by the government, also left a blank page * for the comments of readers.
As newspapers evolved, readers found new ways to comment. Leonard reports that later subscribers in Boston paid a premium for wrappers "so they would have a generous writing space as they sent the paper along." In the 1800s, as pioneers moved West, the mailed newspaper became "a natural greeting card," as Leonard puts it, that allowed friends and family back home to know that the traveler had arrived at his destination. Friendships and courtships were advanced by the exchange of newspapers, much as friends and lovers trade URLs via e-mail today. By forwarding a newspaper—or a URL—the sender validates the information transferred. But usually, the information being transferred is dwarfed by the sender's expression that he is just thinking of the recipient.
In Knowledge Is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700-1865, Richard D. Brown describes another proto-Web means of news transmission. In late-18th-century Boston, ship captains, merchants, traders, and others would gather at the coffeehouse to trade word of mouth and partake of the newspapers purchased by the proprietor. They would also consult the books maintained by the coffee shop, whose blank pages they would fill with their "news and opinions daily." The way Brown describes them, these pages sound like today's comments sections (except they obviously didn't require writers to register their e-mail addresses or Facebook IDs).
In my plunge into the prehistory of comments sections, I've yet to find evidence of the first flame war or of the first banned commenter. But as I dig deeper, I'm sure I will. Nobody can respond to the news for long without knocking somebody's nose out of joint, right?
I used to get a slew of e-mail from readers. Then, in February, Slate added a new in-page comments system that allows readers to post their comments directly below Slate pieces. (Previously, readers could post only to our "Fray" section, which you have to click to read.) Now, instead of sharing their cheeky comments with just me, readers are doing that coffee shop thing and sharing them with one another. That leaves me feeling lonely. Bring back the good old days: Send e-mail to email@example.com. Or at the very least sign up for my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)