Today’s social media users may be heirs to a rich tradition, with surprisingly deep historical roots
For Generation Y — the set of people that were born a few years before the dotcom boom, who struggle to remember a life without the Internet — it is terribly easy to believe that everything about our generation is new.
In fact, the story of the Internet and social media is one of David versus Goliath. The brash, young upstart “new media”, forged by 25-year-old Silicon Valley billionaires, versus the increasingly embattled and established “old media”. But what if this battle is a false dichotomy, with the so-called “new media” having roots in civilizations as old as the Roman Empire?
In ‘Writing on the Wall’, The Economist’s digital editor, Tom Standage, points out that although Internet users may like to think that “today’s social media environment is unprecedented”, this is far from being the case. His central idea is that social media, often sold as the newest game in town, is something Cicero, the great Roman orator and politician, would have recognised.
It sounds like an attention-grabbing and empty hypothesis: how the ancient Romans created social media. It is also an observation that has been made before — but never with such a wealth of information to back it up.
Today we equate the mainstream media with either conglomerates or moguls: The Times Group, Viacom and Rupert Murdoch. What could be more representative of media history, Standage suggests, than Cicero, who like other Roman elite, got much of his news from papyrus rolls that had been copied, annotated and passed from person to person.
Standage expands on his simple thesis both elegantly and instructively. Messages that were sent over short distances were written on wax tablets — an object that he points out looked “much like today’s iPad.” For messages that had to travel a longer distance, papyrus rolls were used through a delivery method that was informal and therefore not too secure — a concern that Standage likens to today’s problems of securing an open Wi-Fi network.
Writing on the Wall picks up on a number of surprising connections, some that are unfortunately stretched beyond their logical conclusion. Graffiti in the ancient city of Pompeii functioned like Facebook “wall-posts”. Courtiers in Tudor England exchanged commonplace books that often allowed small pieces of poetry and gossip to be passed on and added to — similar to how Tumblr and Twitter work today.
The author takes the reader quickly through history, pinpointing examples that echo his underlying assumption: that sharing information within our social networks is a “central part of being human”.
From social media behaviour, Standage quickly moves to the effect of social media on revolutions and society and large. Here, the focus is not on Twitter and the Arab Spring, but on the age of Martin Luther — where theological arguments that once took place behind closed doors slowly began to take place in public.
In this period, news was often transmitted through woodcuts and ballads and even through song forms called contrafacta. These “mashed up pious pieces of melody with profane lyrics” weren’t too different from the awareness campaigns that take place from time to time on YouTube.
More interestingly, the ‘95 Theses’ that Martin Luther pasted on his church door in Wittenberg — which was printed and passed from hand to hand — spread rapidly across Germany, eventually going “viral” all across Europe. Two and a half centuries later, American revolutionary Thomas Paine similarly used the pamphlet system to spread his argument for American independence.
Perhaps more important is how Standage’s examples show that the reaction of the moral police to social media, or literally any activity driven by changes in technology, is something that has happened throughout history . These commentators and purveyors of wisdom complain constantly of the “debasement of debate and the pernicious effects on minds and morals.”
Socrates, for instance, argued that when exposed to writing, people would become “hearers of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear omniscient and will generally know nothing.” Think of the common complaints against Facebook or Google today — educators and parents seem to be channeling Socrates when they call for a ban of all social media.
But is there really nothing new? Is Facebook nothing more than a modern-day coffee-house, where people would go to share and discuss news? Where Standage trips, more often than not, is by according little importance to the fact that communication is now global and instantaneous.
For instance, the rapid explosion of social media has led to the creation of Marshall McLuhan’s global village, where people transcend neighborhoods and instead become part of complex community networks that stretch across nations and oceans. The unprecedented acceleration created by the Internet has the definite potential to create something new; something he grudgingly acknowledges in the final pages of the book.
Even when Standage evaluates social media on their own terms, he falls short. In his history of the centralisation of the media, which includes the rise of the radio and television media, there is very little examination of how Facebook and Twitter are gradually becoming an extension of the mass media. Social media is in fact slowly turning today’s newspapers and television channels into a two-way conversation.
In the meantime, his hypothesis that today’s social media has much in common with the “really old” media from 51 B.C to 1833 — and less with the tightly conglomerate controlled media of 1833-1993 — cannot be dismissed. If anything, Writing on the Wall reminds us that no matter how much our material environment changes, our behaviour remains the same.
“Today’s social media users are the unwitting heirs of a rich tradition with surprisingly deep historical roots. Tracing the story of the rise, fall and rebirth of social media provides an illuminating new perspective. It reveals that social media does not merely connect us to each other today, it also links us to the past,” he writes. We would be fools to assume otherwise.
The blurb accompanying “History re-tweeting itself” read: “Today’s social media users may be heirs to a rich tradition, with surprisingly deep historical routes.” It should have been historical roots.