Monday, February 17, 2014

There Were Trolls and Anonymous Bullies Long Before the Internet

Over the past year, I've been blogging about postcards on my other blog The Deltiology Deity. In going through my collection to prepare for Valentine's Day, I noticed some of my postcards that were not of the lovey-dovey sort that one typically encounters, but were rather crass.

In researching these, I discovered there was a tradition from the 1840s to 1940s in the U.K., Canada, and the U.S. of sending "vinegar valentines".

Vinegar valentines were often sent anonymously to someone that senders didn't like or that they felt needed to be brought down a peg. This practice is much like the anonymous comments left on social network pages, forums, and comments (but without the visual component.)

Here's an example from my collection:
"Vinegar valentine", circa 1910

To see more examples, visit Google image search.  You can see some of the really mean ones there.

An article from Mental Floss notes that at one point half of valentines sales were of the vinegar flavour. An expert on this topic, Annebella Pollen, describes the tradition in a Collector's Weekly article:
There were so many different kinds. You could send them to your neighbors, friends, or enemies. You could send them to your schoolteacher, your boss, or people whose advances you wanted to dismiss. You could send them to people you thought were too ugly or fat, who drank too much, or people acting above their station. There was a card for pretty much every social ailment.... I suppose they could be considered a form of bullying, at least in their most extreme forms. A lot of them are quite playful and cheeky, though. Most are kind of a fond dig in the ribs. Some of the more playful ones I saw might depict, for example, a father discovering a couple canoodling behind the rose bush and pouring cold water out of a watering can on them. That's similar to the gentle humor you would find in an early silent film. So some show the age-old scenarios that are slightly risqué humorously delivered, rather than telling somebody they're stupid and that no one will ever want to marry them.
The above vinegar valentine was unsent. Most of the ones that were sent to people were not saved due to their often nasty nature.  I find it fascinating that this was not a marginal activity that last for a few years - it seems like the tradition was extremely popular and persisted for about 100 years.

I've noted elsewhere that communication forms and media norms don't develop in a vacuum - they have precedents throughout our history.  For example, gossip messages have been found in ancient Egyptian cities.

So despite the rhetoric over the Internet creating a culture of anonymous bullying, it is not true. Humans have used the communication forms and media available to them throughout the ages to expose their darker side. To understand what really creates this behaviour, we have to look deeper into human nature.

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