Walls, posts, and boards: Revisiting analog structures of social mediation

Workers at the Glenn Martin aircraft plant share information about carpooling on the bulletin board. 1942. Photographer: Howard Liberman. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
Among the various retro technologies shown in the TV series Mad Men, one in particular always catches my attention: the office bulletin board. Usually relegated to the background, the bulletin board comes into focus in at least two scenes in the series. In the first, it offers a platform for a petty office revenge when an ego-bruised employee, Paul, posts a copy of Joan the secretary’s driver’s license, publicly revealing her age and humiliating her in front of her colleagues. In the second (video below), it offers a lesson in social self-presentation when the same secretary, Joan, chides her co-worker Peggy for posting on the board a bland advertisement for a roommate and helps her craft a flirtier one.

Joan offers advice to Peggy on how to present herself on the office bulletin board.
These scenes around the bulletin board, though small and seemingly insignificant moments in the series’ overall plot, are useful reminders of the long history of social mediation before the age of social media. In particular, they highlight the enduring and everyday practice of people posting information on public structures and common surfaces to communicate messages, share ideas, and represent themselves to audiences of varying sizes and scopes. These analog structures of social mediation―including not only bulletin boards, but also walls, telephone poles, refrigerator and office doors―are ubiquitous, and often mundanely informational, features of the landscape. But as the small dramas around the bulletin board in Mad Men suggest, such structures have also historically served as useful and flexible platforms for participatory communication, or spaces around which people congregate, exchange meaning, and even negotiate power through bits of posted media.

Bulletin board on Hennepin Avenue. Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1937. Photographer: Russell Lee. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.

Media research has increasingly highlighted the fluidity of boundaries between the physical and virtual, digital and analog, online and offline spheres. As Anna McCarthy and Nick Couldry argue in MediaSpace (Routledge, 2004), there is a need to move beyond the idea that virtuality is immaterial or unmoored from the spatial realities of everyday life, and to recognize “the artefactual existence of media forms within social space” as well as “the ways that media forms shape and are shaped by the experience of social space” (2). This emphasis on the spatiality of media culture is complemented by a historical turn in media studies that calls for situating “new media” in pre-digital histories of mediated, material, and technological experience. With these perspectives in mind, my aim in revisiting the bulletin board is to suggest that at the same time that we pursue this week’s prompt on MediaCommons―How does digital culture enter physical spaces and situations?we should also be asking the inverse: How does physical culture enter digital spaces and situations?

It is worth considering, for example, how material structures like bulletin boards and their associated social practices have informed the architectures and cultures of digital space, from the bulletin board systems (BBSes) of the early internet to the “walls” of Facebook, the “posts” of blogs and microblogs, and the “boards” of Pinterest. How has the ubiquitous presence of these physical spaces in everyday life configured the habits and hierarchies of information seekers and sharers online? And given what we know, conversely, about social media and other virtual spaces as sites of cultural negotiation, self-presentation, and politics, how might they, in turn, lead us to reconsider the neglected material spaces, surfaces, and grassroots practices of communication that existed before the internet?


It is very interesting to consider the ways that these old forms of social mediation have been transformed for use in digital spaces. What stands out to me is the way that designers of these digital tools for mediation appear to have very consciously created platforms that have close ties in form and function to those old physical tools. So much so that you see discussions about them happening in reverse now. What comes to mind to me are the new esurance commercial that features an older woman posting pictures on her "wall" where that wall is a literal wall instead of her facebook page. Media has reached a point where the digital has become the norm and the metaphor is now being used in reverse. This appears to be a result of designers attempting to stick so closely to old physical concepts in describing new media. I see it as being helpful in getting people more comfortable in using digital tools but at this point is it possible that being tied to old physical constructs could be hindering the way these tools can be used going forward?

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.