When my parents found out that I was writing a series of books that take place during the first world war (side project), my father started digging around through the family “vault.” The vault, real or figurative, contains oodles of documents, archives, family trees, heirlooms, photographs and other artifacts that touch on the family’s history over the last five centuries or so. Fascinating stuff. Mysterious stuff. At any rate, he went digging and found a canvas wallet filled with letters which he knew dated back from World War I, which his father (the first Olivier Blanchard) fought in. He believed that the letters had been written by grandpa Olivier during his campaign in the Orient as a cavalry officer, and hoped they would provide me with terrific every-day life material for the books. As you can well imagine, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this stuff.
Earlier this month, taking advantage of a quick trip to Amsterdam, I took a quick detour through France to spend a few days with my parents. I hadn’t been there but ten minutes before my father handed me this treasure-trove of insights which no one had so much as read or touched since 1918.
So here I am, holding in my hands this thick wad of impeccably folded letters and postcards, tucked away in a canvas wallet that – although obviously of a different era, looked as new as if I had just purchased it last week at H&M. The paper was thin and a little yellow, but not from age. Every word looked as crisp and rich as if the ink had just finished drying. I roughly counted the letters: Somewhere between 60 and 80 letters in all, spanning from a period between February to August of 1918. Every letter was dated, numbered, and organized in chronological order. I glimpsed the handwriting, which was decidedly French and very old school, but decipherable all the same. I knew immediately that I had struck gold, not just in terms of raw research for the project, but also in terms of getting a glimpse at the lives of family members I had not ever gotten to know.
It should be said that by the time I was old enough to know about World War I, my grandfather was already very old. Like many survivors of The Great War, he wasn’t much into talking about it – or talking about much of anything – and especially not with an 8-year old. He and his cousins died when I was in my teens, without ever having told me or anyone outside of their own generation the simple stories of their youth. They passed away, one by one, much of their furniture and private things finding their way to various descendants and godchildren scattered all across Europe. Much of it probably ended up in estate sales and antique swaps. What vague historical significance might have still lingered behind them died outright when they became the property of strangers.
This is how family histories die, by the way: Stories don’t get passed down, and so one day the priceless portrait of an ancestor goes from being a family’s oldest historical artifact to being that weird ugly painting of some random person that Uncle Jack always had up on his wall. Estate sales are full of them: Paintings of strangers. Every single one of these strangers hanging on a wall in a gallery or study or just sitting under a sheet in an old garde-meuble is someone’s ancestor, orphaned either by chance or neglect, and destined never to find its way home. Pocket watches, jewelry, hats, books, pens, tea sets, old papers… sold, thrown away, donated. Before you know it, nothing remains but gravestones and dates. Before long, these too are forgotten.
It didn’t occur to me how much of a tragedy this erosion of every family’s history was until years after my grandfather’s generation passed away, when I became a father. Some part of me started to look for a link to the past, to some sense of continuity and legacy I could pass down to my children. It isn’t about just understanding your blood line’s connection with historical events. I think that knowing where you come from, who your ancestors were, helps shape who you will become in your life. We all look for heroes in our ancestors, people with courage and character, people we hope to find a little of ourselves in. Knowing where you come from matters. If it didn’t, sites like ancestry.com wouldn’t be as popular as they are.
But I digress. The letters: I started reading them. A few minutes into the process, I realized that they were not at all what I thought they were. They were not my grandfather’s letters to his family. They were the letters his father Edmond and mother Elise sent to him. They were letters from home. I have to admit that I was a little disappointed at first. I wanted to find out what it was like for a soldier, being shipped to the front, rotating between the relative safety of billets and the terror and carnage of the front lines. It was him I wanted to understand. It was through his eyes that I wanted to see the war. How could letters from his parents, safely tucked away in Paris, ever compete against that? Two letters into it, I realized how wrong I had been. As interesting as it would have been to read his side of the correspondence, discovering theirs was equally fascinating, if not more. Through their letters, I discovered a world that books and movies about the time period rarely shed a light on: How did the French live in 1918? How did parents deal with having a son fighting a war that was clearly the most devastating corpse factory in history? How did Parisians deal with the threat of defeat and occupation, with the privations of war, with the stress of having the Germans close enough to bomb them almost daily? What were their daily lives like?
I now had 6 months worth of letters promising to answer precisely these questions and more. Bonus: As I sifted through them, I soon realized that my great grandmother and great grandfather had entertained separate correspondences with my grandfather. There were two sets of letters bearing the same dates. I would get to experience the same events from two distinct points of view: A man’s and a woman’s. A father’s and a mother’s.
What did I discover? More than I could have hoped for. The price of things, for starters, as my grandfather never failed to bring up the price he paid for every item he sent to my grandfather in his monthly care-packages. The fact that Paris was experiencing terrifying artillery bombardments by day and air raids by night. I know where the bombs and shells fell, on what dates, at what time, what damage they caused and who was killed or injured. I know what the weather was like. I know what the press was telling and not telling the populace. I know who was ill, who was spending a few days in Versailles or Lion sur mer, who was forced out of Amiens because of the mandatory evacuations. I know whose son was killed or injured in such and such battle and on what date. I know who had a cold and who passed a kidney stone. I know the frequency with which people received and wrote letters, or just called them on the telephone. I discovered a million things that paint the clearest portrait of these young, dynamic, fascinating people I only knew as old, tired, white-haired seniors who played bridge with one another and talked of things I didn’t understand. But more to the point of this blog – which is most certainly not about my side projects or my family history – I learned something about the way people communicated with one another in 1918, and my reaction was essentially one of surprise, even shock: Facebook be damned. Even without what we know today as social media, without the benefit of the web and mobile devices, people seemed infinitely more connected to one another in 1918 – and with a war just a horizon away – than we are today with all of our real-time global communications tools. How could this be?
I could go on my parents’ Facebook wall on any given day and not know a fraction of the things people knew about each other’s days back then. I am not talking about people living down the street from one another either. The family was scattered all around France. The Blanchards, the Bassets, the Clogensons, the Guyons and other families which formed the complex web of cousins by blood and marriage were everywhere: Paris, Brest, Lille, Versailles, Amiens, Lyon and dozens of other cities and towns. Not only that but they were often in flux, spending a few days here, a few weeks there, visiting relatives, airing out houses, locking up apartments, taking the baths, getting away. The telephone was still a new invention. What we now know as “snail mail” was the only mature communications technology of the time. Judging by the fading ink every few lines, dipping your pen into an ink well to commit words to paper was still the norm. Letters had to be painstakingly hand-written, in legible handwriting, then taken to the post office. From there, they reached their destinations by foot, car, train, steam ship, bicycle and horseback. Steam ship schedules were widely known so people sending mail overseas were sure not to miss the narrow windows of opportunities during which their mail could be sent abroad. Miss the ship and your letter would take six rather than three weeks to reach the next continent.
Mail, the telegraph and the telephone: Those were your choices. And yet the connectivity between these people, separated by significant distances without the benefit of social and mobile communications, is to me nothing short of amazing. It puts today’s connectivity between us to shame. I’m not kidding. We’re amateurs compared to these folks who could have never even imagined a thing like Twitter, let alone the internet. They knew everything about one another: where they were, who they were with, what they talked about, what the weather was like there, what they ate and drank, what they were wearing… every last detail. Not with just five or six people in their immediate circles but dozens.
As entertaining as it is to read about gothas blowing up Captain Machin-chose’s pied-à-terre on the Rue de Rivoli and my great-uncle Maurice’s daily dance with whooping cough in March of 1918, seeing how efficient the information network between relatives and social circles was, in spite of the obvious absence of technology, is one of the most fascinating aspects of this discovery process.
My conclusion: We have forgotten more about the nature of social connectivity in the last 96 years than we have learned from every blog post written about Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Youtube, blogs, Tumblr, Quora and Pinterest combined (yes, including Mashable). Those of you who still think that all of this is about followers and fans, about platforms, about messaging and content, good luck with that. You’re fishing in the wrong pond with the wrong lure. There is something infinitely more human, simple and honest about what makes this connectivity work, about what feeds it (and how to ultimately tap it properly) than the channels, the technologies, the tools and even the vaunted strategies everyone and their brother is trying to sell you.
Don’t look to engagement and conversations to give meaning to any of it. Don’t look to content either. These things matter, sure, but they are not the core, the pivot, the heart of what makes this all work. There is something else, and until you have figured out what it is, your social media and social business “strategies,” no matter how much money and science you throw at them, will never work the way you want them to.
So take a giant step back. Stop listening to the incessant social media echo chamber for a few days. You owe it to yourself (and perhaps your clients) to get your eye back on the ball when it comes to this. You have been led astray a million times, one millionth of a degree at a time. While you thought you were still on the right track, you were already off course. “Content is king,” engagement strategy, Return on Influence, they are little more than gloss on broken compasses, buzzwords whose meaning, if they ever held any, have now eroded into parodies of legitimate insight. As for the self-important messengers of this so-called social media “thought leadership” movement, these hot air selling imbeciles peddling their pathetic blend of make-believe authenticity and “engagement strategy” day after day after day, blog post after tweet after webinar, all I see there now is the final act in a opera of uninspired parroting whose every note brings them closer to its inexorable denouement. We know where this is headed. We all know it. And not even their Klout scores will save them when the house lights come back on.
Something became painfully clear to me while I was reading these letters and saw the timeless nature of human connectivity so clearly manifested in them. I won’t tell you what it is. It wouldn’t do any good. You have to go look for it yourselves, in your own way, or you will never completely get it. But what I can tell you is this: Until then, learn to tell the difference between self-serving nitwits who have merely memorized the choreography and lyrics of the daily social media sales pitch, and people who understand how all the pieces actually fit. Stop spending time with the former and start filling your ranks with the latter. It will start to pay off right away.
None of this is trivial.
* * *