“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
–Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr
Those of us old enough to remember when there was no public Internet should be wise enough to know that the Internet has enabled human impulses, not invented them (just wait until you get to tell your grandkids that you are older than the Internet and absolutely blow their minds. Worst-case scenario is that they answer, “What is an Internet?” and you feel truly ancient).
For clear evidence of the consistency of human frailties, look no further than to 3,000 year old cave carvings in China. Despite the arduousness of chiseling images into rock, early artists took the time to carve pornography (euphemistically termed “erotic depictions”) into cave rock.
As soon as the pre-cursor of paper was invented, people started drawing pornography on that as well. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the Internet of today is used to distribute “erotic depictions” and similar material (or so rumor has it).
Tired of endless pictures of other people’s vacations ending up on your social media feeds1? Believe me, it beats having to sit through an hour of passing around analog photographs or, God forbid, feeling a spasm of dread when somebody brings out a slide show projector. The Internet did not invent boring your friends with pictures of your trips; it merely made it much easier. The good news is that the Internet has also made it much easier to politely acknowledge those same vacation photographs. The inventor of the LIKE button deserves a Nobel Prize. You don’t even need to be in the same room as the sender! This makes faking enthusiasm order of magnitudes easier. This should be seen as real progress for human civilization. (Actually – photo quality is so good now that I really enjoy the vast majority of photos I see on social media. Progress!.)
Recent studies of Sumerian clay tablets indicates that the hashtag (#) was used as early as 2,000 years ago to denote trending topics and as a mechanism to link together similar comments from multiple sources2. It is fair to say that many key features of Twitter are merely modern incarnations of communication methods used in ancient Mesopotamia3.
This brings us to the modern Internet troll. The Internet troll haunts every possible online social network while showing a particularly predilection for Twitter (maybe even trolls are increasingly suffering from short attention spans?). It is easy to view their vileness as evidence that morality is in decline or, at best, clear evidence that technology makes us worse people.
To assure us that modern humans are not particularly nasty, look no further than the vinegar valentine. This was a proactively nasty form of anti-valentine. Instead of sending a valentine card to somebody to show romantic interest or merely as a compliment, the vinegar versions were delightful little missives to express a lack of romantic interest or to point out particularly egregious flaws with the recipient.
While by no means comprehensive, some common categories were:
1) “You are terrible and nobody likes you”
2) “You are terrible and no one will ever love you”
3) “You have a terrible character flaw”
4) “I have mommy issues and I want to take it out on women in general”
5) “Smart people are the worst!”
6) “Stop being such a slut”
7) “You are ugly”
While some cards were perhaps made in jest (although, at best, very passive aggressive attempts at humor), it is difficult to find humor in a card that literally asks the recipients to kill themselves. It is fair to say that the vast majority of vinegar valentines were expressly designed to mock, insult and hurt.
The heyday of the vinegar valentine was between 1840 – 1940, running closely in parallel to the rising interest in, and commercialization of, Valentine’s Day itself4. By some estimates, eventually around 50% of Valentine’s Day cards were of the vinegar variety. By 1850, the vast majority of cards were mass-produced meaning that sending out hateful messages at Valentines was an actual industry.
Vinegar valentines share many characteristics with modern trolling:
- Public / semi-public (since the Valentines were usually postcards, everyone handling the delivery could clearly see the nature of the card and the related insult)
- Cheap (cards were initially 1 cent. Up until around 1840, the recipient of the card was charged for postage! Ouch.).
It would seem that people in 1850 are not so different from us today after all. Anonymity and low transaction costs means that some people will take the opportunity to insult others. The fact that the insults are public or semi-public appears to add to the allure.
Society at the time also grappled with many of the same modern issues in terms of how to respond to trolls. There were many examples of fisticuffs, the occasional lawsuit and the role of institutional censorship (some post-offices refused to deliver vinegar valentines that they viewed as too scandalous).
The more common types of insulting messages show strong similarities with modern trolling techniques. Victims were picked on for familiar perceived characteristics (too fat, too bald, too pretty, too ugly), actions (drinking, talking too much, not talking enough, etc.) and age-old sins (vanity, gluttony, pride, greed, etc.).
People perceived as challenging societal norms were singled out for particular abuse. By the 1920’s a disproportionate number of cards appear to have been directed to women suffragettes. In addition, women were accused of being too bossy (or their husbands too henpecked), a clear sign that many people were threatened by women gaining ground in public spheres previously unavailable to them. Single women were insulted as picky, boring or ugly. Women in relationships were accused of being vain, disingenuous, or promiscuous. Then, as now, there was no way to make yourself unassailable from somebody determined to dislike you and willing to take a moment out of their day to insult you from behind a veil of secrecy.
Many of the cards, either implicitly or explicitly, make references to “we”. Vinegar valentine senders clearly wanted the recipients to know that the flaws pointed out were more than just their personal opinion and reflected a common belief among the recipient’s social network. Then, as now, trolls tool solace in the herd and in many cases perhaps saw themselves as guardians of “proper” social conduct.
The logical conclusion is that there were some lousy people in 1850 just as there are lousy people today. Give those flawed individuals cheap, easy and most importantly anonymous ways to insult others and they will take advantage of the opportunity.
This is neither a particularly optimistic or pessimistic finding. After all, the basic categories of human sin have been clearly established for a long time.
Those looking for an optimistic ending may take solace in the fact that the vinegar valentine tradition mostly died out around 1940. Nobody is quite sure why5 but it does demonstrate that nothing is inevitable or permanent.
- I do this all the time. All the time!
- This is not true.
- I cannot stress it enough – this is made up.
- It may also make some people happy to know that people were also already complaining that holidays like Valentine’s Day were being over-commercialized as early as 1840. Once again, the more things change…
- One of the challenges in studying the vinegar valentine tradition is that so few of them were kept. Stashing away love letters for future perusal? Sure. Insults on paper? Not so much.
Patrick has spent the bulk of his career in management consulting. He is the President of Vazara Consulting and is currently focused on building companies in the advanced materials industry.