Social Media - The First 2000 Years


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Tom Standage, the Digital Editor of The Economist shares with SMLF members why social media platforms aren't just a recent development and how we know that it dates back to Roman times. This in-depth look into the history of social was a fully-subscribed session

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  • Hello. I want to talk about social media. You might be thinking: oh no. But I’m pretty sure that you won’t have thought about it this way before. I want provide a historical perspective on social media.
  • So, what is social media?
  • Well, this is my definition.
  • You know how this works: information ripples from person to person, across a network of contacts. Today we use Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms to share stuff with our friends and chat about things online
  • But this isn’t new. I want to argue that social-media environments have existed for centuries, as people have copied and shared information with their friends and contacts. To do this you need a certain degree of literacy, and it needs to be pretty cheap and easy to copy and deliver information.
  • As far as I can tell, the earliest social-media system arose in Roman times. Literacy was relatively high for the ancient world. Here we see a middle-class couple, a baker and his wife from Pompeii, proudly holding the evidence of the literacy: a folding wax-tablet and a papyrus scroll. Copying and delivering information was cheap, particularly, for the rich, not because they had broadband like we do today, but because they had slaves. Slaves were the Roman equivalent of broadband.
  • Members of the elite wrote to each other, and sent copies of letters containing news and other information. Letters were semi-public documents that were often shared.
  • Romans would keep copies of outgoing letters so they could refer to them and provide copies if needed; on some occasions people put copies of letters into general circulation, like publishing a blog post. Books and notable speeches were also distributed in this peer-to-peer fashion. So too was the Roman newspaper, the actadiurna. Do you know how many copies of it were produced each day? One. It was posted in the forum. If you wanted to read it, you either went to the forum or sent a scribe to jot down the interesting bits for you on a wax tablet.
  • Here’s a Roman wax tablet of the kind that was used to read the news. It looks rather familiar, I think you’ll agree. People would then copy snippets of news into letters, adding their own thoughts and commentary. Romans relied on their social networks to stay informed.
  • The most adept use of social media in Roman times was probably the apostle Paul. His epistles, or letters, to early Christian churches were intended to be read out and then copied to other local churches. They ended up in the New Testament.Paul’s skillful use of social media shaped the early Christian church. His letters are still read out in churches today – now that’s social distribution!
  • More than a millenniumlater, Martin Luther also made skillful use of social media in his dispute with the Pope. His “95 Theses” was a list of questions relating to the doctrine of indulgences which he disagreed with. They spread very quickly, first in written form and then, translated from Latin into German, as printed pamphlets.
  • The first copies spread to other towns, where they caused a stir and printers, sensing strong demand, reprinted them, causing them to spread further. Within weeks the whole of Europe was talking about Luther’s ideas. Today we would say that Luther went viral. He received letters from all over Europe from people who had read his theses and agreed with him.
  • This came as a shock to Luther, but he realised he could use it to his advantage. He began writing pamphlets not in Latin but in German, to reach the widest possible audience. He gave each one to a local printer in his home town of Wittenberg and let them spread. How effective was this? Today we measure the spread of posts on social media by counting Likes, retweets, +1s or reblogs. You can do the same for pamphlets by counting the number of times they were reprinted – the number of editions.
  • The results. The darker colours are the number of original pamphlets by Luther each year in German and Latin; the lighter colours are the retweets. Sorry, reprints. The Catholic church was unsure how to respond; should it dignify this crazed priest with a formal response? Much like the attitude companies used to have to mere bloggers. This turned out to be a mistake, and Luther’s ideas were widely embraced. The result was the split in the church between Catholics and Protestants – the Reformation.
  • In the 17th century coffeehouses emerged as social-media platforms. Like coffee, the institution of the coffeehouse was an import from the Arab world.
  • People went to coffeehouses to read pamphlets and discuss the latest news. Coffeehouses often specialised, like blogs do today, in particular subjects.
  • People went to coffeehouses to read pamphlets and discuss the latest news. Coffeehouses often specialised, like blogs do today, in particular subjects. What made coffeehouses particularly effective information exchanges was the custom that social distinctions were left at the door; what mattered was what you had to say, not your job or social class. As a result, they allowed people and ideas to mingle in new ways.
  • There are many other examples. This is a commonplace book, a forerunner of Tumblr and Pinterest, in which people would jot down items of interest and share them with friends; what you shared allowed you to project a particular image of yourself. Other examples I’ve found include the Facebook of the Tudor court; the pamphlets of the English Civil war; the scandalous poetry slips of pre-Revolutionary France; and Tom Paine’s pamphlets which rallied American colonists in favour of independence.
  • So if social media was widespread in history, why have we failed to notice it? What happened?
  • What happened was that we went from a world of social media, all those examples I’ve been telling you about…
  • …to a world of mass media or broadcast media, starting in the 19th century. New technologies, starting with the steam press, and then the radio and television transmitters of the 20th century, made distributing information to large numbers of people more efficient than ever before. This overshadowed the social-distribution systems that had previously been used to spread information. Expensive, only available to large companies or governments. The result was a switch from peer-to-peer distribution (horizontal) to a top-down, broadcast model (vertical)
  • Broadcast technologies were an amazingly powerful way to spread propaganda and promote nationalism. This is the Volksemfänger, the Nazi “people’s radio”. It could not pick up foreign broadcasts – it forced you to listen to Hitler making all those speeches. This sort of centralised control is the very opposite of social media.
  • But now social media is back, thanks to the Internet. It makes it possible to reach a large audience, like broadcast, but at almost zero cost. Now social media can once again compete with broadcast media on an equal footing!
  • I think all this gives us a new way to look at the history of media. Instead of thinking of it as old media (analogue, broadcast) giving way to new media (digital, social)…
  • …we can see that “new” media (digital, social) is not entirely unprecedented, but is actually a rediscovery of the social nature of “really old” media, which predominated before the old-media/broadcast era.
  • Indeed, it turns out that many of the questions raised by social media today also arose in the past, prompted by older forms of social media. That means that ancient social-media systems hold valuable lessons for us today. There are many, but here are the three most important ones.
  • Another commonly asked question: does it promote “social notworking?”
  • Some people think social networking should really be called…
  • Socialnotworking. It distracts people and encourages them to waste time
  • This is not a new complaint. Anthony Wood, an Oxford antiquarian, made the same complaint about coffeehouses, the social-media platforms of his day, in the 1670s.
  • Similar concerns were voiced by a Cambridge don…
  • …and a pamphlet published in 1673, which called coffeehouses “great enemies to diligence and industry”
  • This was wrong. The scientific revolution was born in the coffeehouses of 1660s London! Newton’s Principia! They also gave birth to Lloyd’s, the world’s leading insurance market, and the London stock exchange. The free mingling of people and ideas gave rise to unexpected innovations. Rather than condemning it, companies should embrace social-media systems as a way to encourage collaboration and innovation. Many companies are.
  • Another commonly asked question about social media today
  • The same question has been asked about previous revolutions. Did Luther’s printed pamphlets cause the Reformation? Did Tom Paine’s pamphlet lead to American independence? With hindsight we can see what really happened: in both cases social media made it apparent that disgruntlement felt by some was widely shared by others. And that’s what happened in the Arab spring, too (and is happening in China now on weibo).
  • Social media can then help revolutions spread more quickly once sparked; Jared Cohen of Google calls it an “accelerant”. But it does not actually start the fire.
  • One question that is often asked: is social media a fad?
  • If we look at history, we can see that if anything, old media is the short-lived fad. New media has much in common with really old media, but is now supercharged by the internet.
  • Social media’s resurgence today is a return to the previous way of doing things; the mass-media era, in which a few companies and governments had monopolies on the efficient distribution of information, that was the anomaly. This goes a long way to explaining why many big media companies are in trouble today. Their business models were based on control of an expensive, scarce resource that is no longer expensive or scarce. Individual platforms (MySpace) may come and go, but social media is here to stay.
  • In short, modern social-media users are heirs to a centuries-long tradition.
  • Today, blogs are the new pamphlets. Twitter and other microblogs are the new coffeehouses. Tumblr and Pinterest are the new commonplace books. So I hope that next time you check Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or whichever platform you prefer, that you will look at modern social media through new eyes. Social media doesn’t just link us to each other — it also links us to the past. Thank you.
  • Hello. I want to talk about social media. You might be thinking: oh no. But I’m pretty sure that you won’t have thought about it this way before. I want provide a historical perspective on social media.
  • Social Media - The First 2000 Years

    1. 1. Social media: a historical perspective Tom Standage @tomstandage
    2. 2. What is social media?
    3. 3. “Media we get from other people, exchanged along social connections, creating a distributed discussion or community”
    4. 4. Social-media environments have existed for centuries
    5. 5. MEPL
    6. 6. “I sent you on March 24th a copy of Balbus’ letter to me and of Caesar’s letter to him”— Cicero
    7. 7. “You say my letter has been widely published: well, I don't care. Indeed, I myself allowed several people to take a copy of it” — Cicero
    8. 8. RGM Köln
    9. 9. “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.” — Paul, Colossians
    10. 10. Wikimedia
    11. 11. “Hardly 14 days had passed when these propositions were known throughout Germany and within four weeks almost all of Christendom was familiar with them.”— Friedrich Myconius
    12. 12. “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation.” — Martin Luther
    13. 13. MEPL, London Lib
    14. 14. “The Coffeehouses particularly are very commodious for a free Conversation, and for reading… all manner of printed News… and other Prints that come out Weekly or casually.”
    15. 15. “[The coffeehouse] admits of no distinction of persons, but gentleman, mechanic, lord and scoundrel mix, and are all of a piece.” — Samuel Butler, 1668
    16. 16. Beinecke RBML/Yale/Flickr
    17. 17. So what happened to old social media?
    18. 18. MEPL
    19. 19. But now social media is back — thanks to the Internet
    20. 20. “Old” media “New” media 2000
    21. 21. “Really old” media 60BC “Old” media 1833 “New” media 2000
    22. 22. Ancient social-media systems hold lessons for us today
    23. 23. 1. Is social media merely a dangerous distraction that wastes time?
    24. 24. Social networking
    25. 25. Social notworking
    26. 26. “Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none follow it now in the university? Because of coffee-houses, where they spend all their time.” — Anthony Wood, Oxford, 1670s
    27. 27. “Hours are spent in talking, and less profitable reading of newspapers…scholars are so greedy after news that they neglect all for it…” — Cambridge don, 1670s
    28. 28. “Great enemies to diligence and industry…the ruin of many serious and hopeful young gentlemen and tradesmen…” — pamphlet, 1673
    29. 29. Enemies of diligence and industry? No, crucibles of innovation!
    30. 30. 2. What is the role of social media in revolutions?
    31. 31. “From the rapid spread of the theses, I gather what the greater part of the nation thinks of indulgences.” — Martin Luther
    32. 32. Social media does not cause revolutions but helps them along by synchronising opinion and acting as an “accelerant”
    33. 33. 3. Is social media a fad?
    34. 34. “Really old” media 60BC “Old” media 1833 “New” media 2000
    35. 35. Social media is not a fad. The mass-media era was a historical anomaly
    36. 36. Modern social-media users are heirs to a centuries-long tradition
    37. 37. Blogs = pamphlets Microblogs = coffeehouses Tumblr/Pinterest = commonplace books
    38. 38. Social media: a historical perspective Tom Standage @tomstandage