Social Media – Ancient and Modern


A successful social media network is built around a group of literate and well-connected individuals, looking for low cost delivery of information, and a quick and easy messaging service.

We have all this at our fingertips with the Internet, yet author Tom Standage, digital editor at the Economist, argues that these requirements were also met at various key moments in history, dating as far back as ancient Rome.

In his Oxford Literary Festival talk on Social Media: the First 2,000 Years, he explained how the Romans exchanged notes on tablets, speedily delivered by messenger service (aka slaves). Their version of texting shorthand consisted of acronyms such as SVBEEV: “I’m fine, hope you’re well.”

St Paul made sure that his messages were passed along from one church to another with an instruction similar to today’s “Please Retweet!” His epistles made it into the Bible and are still read to this day.

By the time of Martin Luther, the advent of the printing press meant that pamphlets could be widely and rapidly distributed. More than a million copies made their way across Europe within weeks, driving the movement for religious reform.

In the seventeenth century, Coffee Houses became the information exchange where Newton debated with Halley as to whether the orbits of the planets were circular or elliptical.

Just as today’s parents may worry about teens spending too much time on social networks, the Coffee Houses were seen by some critics as a dangerous distraction in their day.  

Standage’s description of social media as “gossip at a distance” highlights the trivial side of a pastime so time-wasting that it has lead to the term “social not-working.”

 Yet this is a double edged sword – just as we can use it to spread gossip, social media can also be a force for social change – an “accelerant” fanning the flames of community spirit and giving a voice to the silent majority through synchronisation of opinion.

In the light of his research, Standage considers social media to be more enduring than mass media. TV and radio broadcasts, which are less interactive and more easily used as a tool for propaganda, could be seen as a mere blip in the time frame of the last 2,000 years. Social media networks may come in phases, but they are more than just a passing fad: it seems that in one form or another, they are here to stay. 

Writing on the Wall: Social Media – the First 2,000 Years, by Tom Standage,  is published by Bloomsbury. 


~ by A_A on March 25, 2014.

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