Skip to content

Big Data to Big History

Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award winner Caroline Winterer is using social network analysis to study one of America’s most cherished historical figures.


Conversation Club

  1. Based on this video, how would you describe social network analysis?
  2. Had you heard of Ben Franklin before watching this video? If so, what did you know of him as a historical figure?
  3. Caroline Winterer says that Ben Franklin wrote 15,000 to 20,000 letters and describes the recipients of these letters as the most famous and ingenious people of that time. Can you think of other examples of ongoing correspondence between famous historical figures? Why would studying that correspondence be important?
  4. Why do you think it would be important to study where Ben Franklin’s letters went in time and in space? How could knowing the context for his correspondence help present-day historians better understand his opinions and ideas?
  5. Winterer claims that her research helps challenge the idea that Ben Franklin was a “lone genius” working in isolation. Why do you think it might be important to challenge that idea? What do you think of the idea of a “lone genius?”
  6. In this video we learn that Ben Franklin spent 18 to 20 years living abroad, in London. How do you think living in other places and experiencing other cultures might help shape one’s views? Can you think of examples in your own life that support this or contradict it?
  7. How do you define your social network? How do you think our understanding of a social network has changed with the advent of the Internet and social networking sites? What do you think future historians will refer to when they try and understand present-day correspondence and the exchange of ideas?
  8. The end of the video playfully refers to a story of Ben Franklin experimenting with electricity using a kite and key. Are you familiar with that story? Are there similar stories in your own culture regarding famous historical figures? What are they?

Video Series

This video exists as part of a series gathered around the theme of Civil Society. Other videos in this series are listed below.

Music’s Melting Pot
Music’s Melting Pot
Big Data to Big History
Big Data to Big History
The Legal Crusader
The Legal Crusader
What Is Next in Space Exploration?
What Is Next in Space Exploration?
Teaching Coding, Empowering Girls
Teaching Coding, Empowering Girls
Space Shuttle Discovery's Biggest Accomplishments
Space Shuttle Discovery's Biggest Accomplishments
How to Grow a Human Arm in a Lab
How to Grow a Human Arm in a Lab
Saving the Coral Reef One Stitch at a Time
Saving the Coral Reef One Stitch at a Time