The Norman Transcript

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November 5, 2013

5 historical pioneers of social media: Martin Luther invented the listicle

(Continued)

LONDON — Today, using Twitter, Facebook and blogs to improve your "personal brand" is social media 101. But it was Elizabethan courtier John Harington who, in the 16th century, pioneered the use of social media for self-promotion (though today he is better known as the inventor of the flushing toilet).

The son of a poet and an attendant to Elizabeth I, he was one of the childless queen's 102 godchildren. He first appeared at court at age 21 and quickly made a name for himself with his snarky epigrams. Satirical and daring in their humor, the chief purpose of these short, snappy messages (today, they'd fit neatly into a tweet) was to advertise the dazzling intellect of their author and advance his career. He became known as the queen's "saucy godson" for quips like this one: "Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason." He even dared to criticize the queen's father, Henry VIII, for his unfortunate habit of having his wives beheaded. In one of his epigrams, a noblewoman receives an invitation to marry the king, but declines:

               ". . . I greatly thank the king your master,

               And would (such love in me his fame hath bred)

               My body venture so: but not my head."

His quips were eagerly whispered from one courtier to another and circulated in written form within the court and beyond. Harington himself gave manuscripts of his collected epigrams to close friends and family members. He liked to play the part of the wise fool, jesting on the sidelines of Elizabeth's court and wrapping up his moral and political barbs in apparently harmless witticisms - their true meaning only apparent once the laughter had subsided. For Harington and his contemporaries, writing poetry was a way to establish a reputation and win a place at court. Poetry in the Elizabethan court could be used to ask for advancement or, in the event of falling from favor, to apologize for misdeeds. Harington's poetry convinced the queen of his cleverness, and she eventually gave him official duties to perform as a courtier, tutor and military observer. After a checkered career in which he often got into trouble for overstepping the mark, he eventually ended up with a knighthood.

               

4. Thomas Paine

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