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Abraham Lincoln didn't invent Facebook (except on the Internet)

Doug Gross, CNN
The first profile page? No. But the story that Abraham Lincoln had an idea like Facebook swept the Web anyway.
The first profile page? No. But the story that Abraham Lincoln had an idea like Facebook swept the Web anyway.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Blog post about Abraham Lincoln and Facebook fools the Web
  • Blogger Nate St. Pierre wrote that Lincoln patented a personal newspaper
  • The fake paper would feature personal information and "status updates"
  • He meant it to be a joke, but several news sites reported it as fact

(CNN) -- To paraphrase "The Social Network," if Abraham Lincoln had invented Facebook, he would have invented Facebook.

But in a tall tale that would have made the Great Emancipator proud, a blog post saying that he did just that was making the rounds Wednesday. And some online media outlets were quick to take the bait.

Blogger Nate St. Pierre, a consultant who works with blogs and other Web businesses to help grow their sites, posted a fantastic yarn Tuesday about stumbling upon a tombstone in Wisconsin that ultimately led him to the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois.

There, he discovered an 1845 patent filed by Honest Abe for a sort of personalized newspaper in which "every Man may have his own page, where he might discuss his Family, his Work, and his Various Endeavors."

Each page would feature a profile picture at the top left. The user's name, address and profession would appear at the top. On a sample page, Lincoln shared two poems he "liked," a short story about the Pilgrims and details about what he did that day (went to the circus).

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"Put all that together on one page and tell me what it looks like to you," St. Pierre wrote. "Profile picture. Personal information. Status updates. Copied and shared material. A few longer posts. Looks like something we see every day, doesn't it?"

In short: Lincoln envisioned a paper version of Facebook, 160 years before Mark Zuckerberg.

Except for the fact that none of it is true.

"I just wanted to have fun with it," St. Pierre said Wednesday. "I've done this before. Every couple of years, I do a hoax. I knew this would go big but didn't expect those dozens of outlets to just run with it without 30 seconds of fact-checking."

For careful readers, St. Pierre's post is sprinkled with what should have been plenty of red flags.

For one, he writes that his search began after he discovered an apparent friendship between Lincoln and legendary huckster P.T. Barnum. You know, the guy widely believed to have said, "There's a sucker born every minute" and "You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time." (Both of those quotes, by the way, may not have actually been said by Barnum.)

He even quotes Wikipedia's entry calling Barnum "an American showman, businessman, scam artist and entertainer, remembered for promoting celebrated hoaxes."

The tombstone in question supposedly belonged to a carny who brags on it about how he "bluffed" Lincoln and Barnum in a poker game.

And photos like the one shown on the page Lincoln supposedly created wouldn't appear in newspapers for several more decades.

"I just did it for fun: an homage to P.T. and his hoaxes ... and Abe's tall tales," St. Pierre said. "Just something fun like that for the modern day."

But he also wanted to make a bigger point: "That the Internet would fall over itself to be first and share without checking."

In the first 24 hours after he posted, the article was shared on Facebook more than 10,000 times, St. Pierre said, adding that his personal blog got more than 50,000 visitors.

Forbes magazine posted a story under the headline "Abraham Lincoln Filed a Patent for a Dead-Tree Facebook in 1845." By Wednesday morning, that story had been pulled.

"A Forbes contributor took Nate St. Pierre's story at face value," a spokeswoman said in an e-mail. "Once Forbes realized it was a prank, the article was pulled from the site."

Tech blog ZDNet did the same. As of Wednesday afternoon, the story was still online, with a note saying that it's a hoax and with some, but not all, of the fake information crossed out. (Hey, a page view is a page view, right?)

At tech blog The Next Web, a story was followed by another pointing out that the too-good-to-be-true story was, in fact, too good to be true. The first line of the original story? "You can't make this stuff up, folks."

Next Web writer Drew Olanoff said the story was popping up elsewhere online when he posted it under the site's "Shareables," section, which features mostly fun, light-hearted stories.

"While it probably should have been marked as fiction by the author, who is obviously extremely imaginative, these things do happen," he said in an e-mail. "I'm sure it got him the attention he was seeking."

For his part, St. Pierre said, he enjoyed watching tech bloggers on Twitter first share the story but then argue amongst themselves about who got fooled first.

"Dude, you both got punked," he said with a laugh.

And while St. Pierre's story was made up, he may have gotten a little closer to the 16th president's true nature than he realized.

Lincoln never envisioned creating a way for his contemporaries to share cute pictures of their cats, much less play FarmVille (which no doubt would have seemed less exotic in rural 19th-century America). But he did become the only U.S. president in history to hold a patent for an invention.

According to the Smithsonian, Lincoln filed in 1849 for a patent on a tool designed to lift ships off of sandbars.

That tool, much like Abe's proto-Web startup, never became a reality.

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