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Writing on the Wall: Social Media - The…

Writing on the Wall: Social Media - The First 2,000 Years

by Tom Standage

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Mostly interesting, except in the boring spots. There was more detail about the history of newspapers than I really wanted to know. The author's premise is that the era of traditional mass media (i.e. widely distributed, one-way communication, controlled by a few centralized sources) was only temporary, extending from the invention of the steam printing press through the rise of radio and television. Prior to that, and now in the Internet era, information transferal has been a much more social concept, with more interaction between giver and receiver. A recurring theme is the role of social media, in its various formats, in fuelling revolutions, from the Reformation to the French Revolution, to the American Revolution, to the Arab Spring uprisings. ( )
  SylviaC | Nov 24, 2015 |
This is not, of course, really the history of what we think of when we say "social media" – MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and so on: as the sub-subtitle hints. More accurately it's the history of all pre-centralized media. Here you will find out about the postal system of the Romans; how Luther made it big; secret messages passed via poetry at the court of Henry VIII; the political rhymes of the French revolution; how early coffeehouses were pretty much like the Internet; and what exactly was the importance of the Stamp Tax. An incredibly fascinating web of stories that expanded my brain...as good media should. Highly recommended for anyone who wants an unputdownable book of social history.


The effect of these caffeine-powered hubs was to increase the speed and efficiency with which information percolated through society. Coffeehouses imposed order on the chaotic media environment of the time, sorting material by topic and making it much easier to find specific types of information, and people to discuss it with. Both pamphlets and people, to use the modern term, became more "discoverable." Coffeehouses gave physical form to the previously immaterial social networks along which information passed, making it much easier to connect to them. If you wanted to know what London's scientists were talking about, for example, and make contact with them, all you had to do was walk into the Grecian coffeehouse. The social mixing that took place in coffeehouses allowed idea to leap over the boundaries of England's class system, as the writer John Aubrey observed when he praised the "modern advantage of coffeehouses...before which, men knew not how to be acquainted, but with their own relations, or societies." Anyone launching a new poem or pamphlet could leave copies in the establishments where it was most likely to find a receptive audience. And pamphleteers of every stripe, notably Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe, found that coffeehouse discussions offered a rich source of material for their sharp-witted satires. Coffeehouses became the logical place not just to read new works, but to write them, too. After the final collapse of press regulation in 1695 a host of new periodicals appeared, including Ned Ward's _London Spy_, Defoe's _Review_, Swift's _Examiner_, Richard Steele's _Tatler_, and the _Spectator_, run by Steele and Joseph Addison. Some establishments even started issuing their own specialist newsletters to cater to their patrons.

This review originally appeared on my blog, This Space Intentionally Left Blank ( )
  emepps | Jan 23, 2015 |
Writing on the Wall is about all of the ingenious and fascinating ways that information has been transmitted over the centuries. The author is able to draw surprising parallels between ancient media and the social media of today. These comparisons inform discussions of issues still relevant today, such as the question of whether communication at a distance makes us feel more or less connected to other people, and raises the question of how we’ll choose to use social media in the future.

Writing on the Wall is very well organized, moving forward chronologically with each chapter devoted to an era dominated by a particular form of communication. These focused chapters allowed the author to share a ton of fascinating details about each era. For those of us who love fun facts, this is perfect. In addition to being enjoyable for their own sake, these little details really brought each era to life for me. For instance, did you know that lower class Romans often communicated via graffiti? And, thanks to the preservation of Pompeii, the author is able to actually share bits of that graffiti! I was amazed at how similar that graffiti was to things people might write today. For me, that feeling of “wow, they were just like us” is one of the best ways to bring history to life.

The title of that chapter on graffiti in Pompeii? “Gnaeus Alleius Wrote on Your Wall.” Although these silly, fun, explicit comparisons to social media of today could have been too much, I enjoyed them a lot. They each made me smile and enhanced that feeling of being connected to the past. However, more even than just being enjoyable and amusing, these comparisons to the past gave the author a way to talk about issues raised by social media that are still relevant today. I particularly enjoyed the direct quotes from luminaries such as Thomas Paine and Cicero on social media in their time. This combination of fun facts and insightful ideas made for an interesting and thought provoking read.

This review first published on Doing Dewey. ( )
  DoingDewey | Jun 29, 2014 |
A refreshing and thought-provoking look at "social media" in its current and historical forms. Standage defines a social media system as "an environment in which information was passed from one person to another along social connections, to create a distributed discussion or community." This allows him to bring into the discussion such examples as Cicero's network of correspondents, Tudor courtiers sharing commonplace books of poems, and the coffeehouse culture of Enlightenment Europe. He's chosen his examples quite well, and drawn from the right sources to make his arguments stick.

After providing a few case studies of historical social media environments, Standage offers some chapters on the mass media culture which sprang up around the 1830s with newspapers and continued through the rise of radio and television (though, as he points out, at the beginning of the radio world there was a time when that too functioned basically as a social media system). Now, he maintains, the tide has turned again, with the Internet and all its tools offering an opportunity for social interaction on a grand scale never before known. The main point is that while today's methods and scale and media may be new, the ideas behind them--"social platforms that enable ideas to travel from one person to another, rippling through networks of people connected by social bonds, rather than having to squeeze through the privileged bottleneck of broadcast media"--have been with us for a very long time indeed.

Witty and amusing, as Standage's writing tends to be (and thus, quite fun to read). ( )
  JBD1 | Nov 24, 2013 |
Showing 4 of 4
In the beginning of the book Writing In The Wall, Tom Standage makes it clear that ideas are spread from two way conversations, from one person to another, rather just coming from one source. Social media is tied to the networking and communication, but it’s the audience that decided what has long-term significance.
Writing On The Wall is a comprehensive look at social media all throughout history. It includes all forms of social communication. Starting with biological and evolutionary need to be connected, early communication with the social grooming habits of pre-human species and primates. To elaborate, Standage shows how informal mail delivery system in ancient Rome helped spread customs easily. With the growth of Roman Empire, writers like Cicero depended on the network of slaves known as “tabellarii”. Messages are easily transported within days and hours sometimes. With messages being transmitted on small sized slates similar to the size of ipads today and because of limited space it had to be short like modern day limited characters on twitter.
Social Media is anything but a new invention that is relevant only in this generation. Starting from the papyrus letters that Cicero and other really important Roman statesmen used as a form to exchange information through communities like how social media works today. To the hand printed tracts of the Reformation and the pamphlets that spread through the American and French revolutions, the direction people were heading in the communication growth was incredible and the way people shared information with their peers echoed and shaped the present.
Tom Standage in “Writing In The Wall” is a book that asks us to look at media in terms of technology growth. Social media is the driving force behind most social movements, revolutions, and shifts of people's thoughts and thinking. Standage claims that it’s through social media that the Roman Empire, post Reformation Europe and Revolutionary War-era America that ideas spread. With interconnected, informal network that drove readers for debates and real world action that allowed the spread. He makes it clear that social media in our history effects revolutionary movements. Informal networks like printers and newspaperman exploded. Group of really important thinkers came to specific places to discusses politics and any important issues within the communities, the place was known as “coffee shops”. One coffee shop was set aside to discuss and read about politics, another for economics, and yet another for literature.
“The Rise of Mass Media: begins and technology, books and newspapers were distributed across the border to middle class men and women making them literate. New technologies, like the telegraph, allowed text to be distributed in a matter of minutes, with printers printing and distributing newspapers within days. Now we know as pop-culture came in this era, writers responding to only what they thought the mass people would enjoy to read instead what they wanted.
Standage discusses how in the 150 years, the concept of a distributed social network was replaced by “mass produced news for mass audience killing the idea of creativity for individuals and establishing hierarchy of media, a central area of source instead of back and forth. As technology grew up, so did the controls over the distribution network. Standage shows this helped change writing in dramatic ways. It also allowed despotic governments, like Hitler’s Nazi party, to control the social network however they saw fit.
Today is a vertical approach in publishing. As Facebook monetizes your “likes” and Twitter bring in sponsored tweets, new networks sprout up to replace the old networks. Overall, “Writing on The Wall” his descriptions of how the internet was the same at the beginning and is nothing came to becoming special, Standage makes a strong case for social media as the driving for change, whether it’s for our own good or not.
added by Yaredaa | editDenver South Student, Yared (Feb 21, 2017)
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Chronicles social media over two millennia, from papyrus letters that Cicero used to exchange news across the Empire to today, reminding us how modern behavior echoes that of prior centuries and encouraging debate and discussion about how we'll communicate in the future.… (more)

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