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

by Tom Standage

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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.

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When I was in college, the social networking site JuicyCampus briefly expanded to my university. It was a forum anyone could sign up for and remain anonymous, and after an extremely short period of sincere posting about the state of campus life, it predictably settled on a stable equilibrium of posts questioning the heterosexuality of selected guys, impugning the sexual virtues of selected girls, rants about foreign students, poorly spelled boasting, and several other forms of high-minded discourse typically associated with YouTube comments. For several months, it was common to hear all sorts of conspiracy theories and rumors as to who certain individuals were and discuss the drama for extended stretches. Eventually the site shut down and everyone moved on, but given a completely free, open, uncensored, anonymous platform to communicate, based on some of the most complex technology in history, able to say whatever they wanted, human beings legally capable of signing up to sacrifice their lives in the service of their country chose to type the equivalent of bathroom stall graffiti at each other. It was hilarious.

Standage's latest work does a lot to place that college experience in context, tracing the history of social media back to the ancient Sumerians and usefully separating the concepts of human socializing from the technologies that are used to enable it. Now, I personally love social media. I use it every day for all sorts of things - discussing what's going on with my life with people I can't necessarily see often, scheduling meetups, recommending news items, discussing books and music and movies, organize politically, and sending stupid pictures with my friends. I read a lot of curmudgeonly arguments about the effects of social media in the news (ironically, frequently on blogs), and Standage has a great list of questions he's exploring in the Introduction that touch on those points:

"Have new forms of social media led to a trivialization of public discourse? How should those in authority respond when they face criticism in social media? Does social media inherently promote freedom and democracy? What is the role of social media, if any, in triggering revolutions? Is it a distracting waste of time that prevents people doing useful work? Is the use of social media actually antisocial, as online connections displace real-world interaction? Is social media just a fad that can be ignored?"

He begins with the banal yet still underappreciated fact that humans are social animals, and how as such we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to flatter, seduce, befriend, bargain, quarrel, and otherwise interact with each other. Much like with grooming and primates, social messages and experiences help to form bonds and advance us in our lives, and so any technology that allows people to communicate with each other - be they clay tablets, sheets of papyrus, wax tablets, plaster walls, codexes, parchment scrolls, libels, pamphlets, newsletters, corantos, newspapers, the telegraph, wireless radio, television, email, websites, blogs, or modern social networking sites - will be eagerly embraced to the extent that it helps them do those things cheaply, easily, and effectively.

Following his discussion of the biological basis for our compulsion to communicate, he moves into brief but illuminating histories of all of those communication methods. Though some of the sections are cribbed somewhat from his earlier works (the section on coffeehouses from the equivalent section on coffee from The World in Six Glasses, the section on the telegraph from The Victorian Internet), all are filled with fascinating little insights. For example, several ancient civilizations deliberately used inefficient cuneiform or pictogram writing systems to keep literacy out of the hands of the masses and thereby entrench themselves as an elite. In an amusing historical irony, Plato's Phaedrus has a long rant in it devoted to the evils of writing:

"Enough of the art of speaking; let us now proceed to consider the true use of writing. There is an old Egyptian tale of Theuth, the inventor of writing, showing his invention to the god Thamus, who told him that he would only spoil men's memories and take away their understandings. From this tale, of which young Athens will probably make fun, may be gathered the lesson that writing is inferior to speech. For it is like a picture, which can give no answer to a question, and has only a deceitful likeness of a living creature. It has no power of adaptation, but uses the same words for all. It is not a legitimate son of knowledge, but a bastard, and when an attack is made upon this bastard neither parent nor any one else is there to defend it. The husbandman will not seriously incline to sow his seed in such a hot-bed or garden of Adonis; he will rather sow in the natural soil of the human soul which has depth of earth; and he will anticipate the inner growth of the mind, by writing only, if at all, as a remedy against old age. The natural process will be far nobler, and will bring forth fruit in the minds of others as well as in his own."

Of course, the only reason this dialogue survives at all instead of countless other ancient works is because it was written down, where it has inspired far more thought and discussion than if it had been confined to the faulty memories of a few present at the Academy when it was written. The famed Roman orator Cicero demanded constant reports of news and rumors from Rome while away in his villa or when stationed in the provinces, while his contemporary Seneca made fun of people who feasted on idle gossip. Julius Caesar may have become the first actual publisher in history when he ordered the proceedings of the Senate, the acta diurna, to be disseminated amongst the people so that his prestige would increase. Cicero had the idea for movable type in the 1st century BC, but slaves, who were used to take dictation and send messages, were so cheap that no one followed him up on the idea (there's perhaps a broader lesson there on the damaging effects that reliance on slave power has for a society's ability to innovate, as well as on the idea that communications can be democratized, but other methods of hierarchy can be established on top quite easily). The Romans frequently used abbreviations that will be familiar to anyone who texts, e.g. SPD for "salutem plurinam dicit" or "sends many greetings", or SVBEEV for "si vales bene est ego valeo" or "if you're well that's good; I'm well".

Standage draws an analogy between the way that Martin Luther engaged his Catholic opponents and coordinated with his allies during the Reformation using much cheaper methods of publishing than his enemies and the way that residents of several of the Arab Spring countries used Facebook to coordinate with each other during their uprisings. To my mind it's almost meaningless to credit Facebook in and of itself for enabling revolution; after all, 99% of all revolutions throughout history have been enabled without that website. However, it's worth asking ourselves to what extent we depend on specific media for certain things. Did the intellectual ferment present in European coffeehouses, as the next section discusses, derive its sole basis from the atmosphere? Would specific discoveries, inventions, or other progress such as the foundation of the London Stock Exchange or Lloyd's insurance company not have occurred without them? It's like when people credit an idea to something they found on Pintrest, which is merely an aggregator. There's probably not a right or wrong answer to that question, and I believe both that proclamations of "Revolution 2.0" (or really anything "2.0") are overblown, and also that saying that those technologies had no role whatsoever are incorrect.

The modern era is where it's even easier to see parallels with our modern world. Much like with Martin Luther, Thomas Paine had enormous success spreading his message of revolution using cheap pamphlets, becoming for a time the biggest-selling author in the world. Attempts to censor dissenting public writings by the British and also the French monarchies were futile and ultimately counterproductive, which is why the People's Republic of China's similar efforts with their Golden Shield in all likelihood will have to give way eventually. Note that "eventually" can be a long time, and though savvy people can easily get around the Great Firewall by using VPNs and such methods, the majority of citizens could be trapped in an AOL-ish walled garden for quite some time. This tension between democratic and authoritarian media is also played out in the technologies that became popular in the early 20th century, namely wireless radio and television. While wireless started out fairly laissez faire, after amateur operators interfered with the Titanic's radio communications before it sank the current system of licensing and regulation began. In contrast, television started off as an oligopoly from the start thanks to corporate lobbying for the VHF model instead of the UHF model, ensuring that instead of many small broadcasters there would only be three large ones for several decades. Even to this day the public broadcast spectrum is heavily regulated, so while in theory anyone could communicate over this medium, in practice visual communication like that has had to wait for the age of YouTube. It's another argument to add to Neil Postman's jeremiad against television in Amusing Ourselves to Death.

The web is where communication could possibly be becoming more democratic again, though there are important caveats. While often platforms like Twitter are privately owned, individual communication is relatively open and free (if often monetized), and vendor lock-in has not yet become such a problem that it's impossible to start new services and alternatives. Social networking sites are even being embraced by large employers as a way to enable employee collaboration, even if they also use those tools to potentially keep tabs on them. Countless people use social media every day to keep relationships going that would be vastly more difficult without them, and if most communication seems trivial, perhaps the real answer is that people are often trivial. The ultimate moral is familiar, that communications technologies are ultimately what we make of them, and can be used for good or evil depending on how they're structured and who the gatekeepers are. While there are many differences in the way that we use modern social media - the Romans didn't have Snapchat, take that losers! - the similarities are really interesting, and valuable perspective whenever you hear someone complain about Facebook or how much people text. You really can learn a lot about the present from studying the past, which is why eventually you understand that sites like JuicyCampus do nothing more than bring out our inner Romans scrawling on the wall of some public building about how our ex-girlfriends are whores, who gave us what STD, or where to go for a good time. Human nature is endlessly entertaining no matter which century you're in or what medium you're viewing it with. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
"[S]ocial media is not new. It has been around for centuries. Today, blogs are the new pamphlets. Microblogs and online social networks are the new coffee houses. Media-sharing sites are the new commonplace books. They are all shared, 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. The rebirth of social media in the Internet age represents a profound shift—and a return, in many respects, to the way things used to be."

A delightful read. Clear, interesting, thorough, and well organized. ( )
  dmturner | Jun 29, 2020 |
If this book had been published today, I would expect to see a lot more material about the Russians hacking our 2016 election using social media. But it's still fascinating and informative, like his previous book "A History of the World in 6 Glasses." The book really does begin 2,000 years ago, with the communications techniques of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The title comes from the practices of the ancient Romans, who literally wrote messages to each other on the walls of their homes. Who knew graffiti was so old? Standage then swiftly moves on to the 16th century, when the printing press made widespread written communication possible. People at court wrote poems and notes to each other, letters were exchanged, and pamphlets and newsletters spread among the literate classes. The Protestant Reformation and the American Revolution both benefited greatly from these early forms of social media. Newspapers, radio, and television consolidated media under central control for several centuries, but in the 21st century we are once again free to communicate directly with each other without permission from anyone. ( )
  DeniseBrush | Sep 28, 2019 |
Although it doesn't present anything new to the student of history, it's still an interesting general overview of the technology and traditions of social information exchange over the last two thousand years.
( )
  natcontrary | May 21, 2018 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
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.

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