Apparently, Facebook alone accounts for one in every seven minutes spent online. We’ve all seen Facebook and hundreds of millions of people use it, along with Twitter, YouTube and numerous other social-media services. But what exactly is social media and what are the consequences of all this sharing, tweeting and messaging?
In his new book, Writing on the Wall: Social Media - The First 2,000 years, Tom Standage - digital editor at The Economist and author of a series of accessible and thought-provoking books on history - defines it as ‘an environment in which information [is] passed from one person to another along social connections, to create a distributed discussion or community’, where material passes horizontally rather than vertically from an impersonal central source. All this ‘horizontal’ communication raises some important questions. Will it lead to the trivialisation of public discourse? How should authorities respond to derision through social media? Does it inherently promote freedom? Is it displacing real-world interactions between people? Is it just a passing fad?
Writing On The Wall attempts to address these questions by looking at social media in the past. It is a phenomenal book of history and technology, but also a thrilling enquiry into human behaviour – our natural need for gossip to build or break alliances, for recognition, and for freedom of expression. The impulse for the book came in 2010, when Standage took charge of The Economist’s website and digital editions and began to read more deeply about the history of news. ‘I soon realised that the mass-media models that are now being disrupted by the internet are actually quite young; they only date back to the nineteenth century. Before that, the media environment was much more decentralised and relied on social distribution and recommendation, for example in coffeehouses. So the rise of social media is a reversion to the way things used to be’, he says.
The book takes us on a journey through history via the changing forms of media, each era being related back to social media as we understand it today. Standage starts with the use of papyrus rolls in Roman times, which were passed from friend to friend, mirroring online social networks and allowing the speedy transmission of news, even including abbreviations such as SVBEEB, short for ‘si vale, bene est, ego valeo’ – ‘if you are well, that is good, I am well’, just as modern social media features shorthand like ‘BTW’. Comments were also graffitied on walls, some with responses and exchanges, much like Facebook walls. The worry that social media is making us anti-social existed in those times, too. Cicero almost obsessively contacted long-distance friends through papyrus rolls.
In the early sixteenth century, pamphlets gained widespread recognition after Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, an attack on the selling of indulgences in the Catholic church. Social media became a platform to share discontent about the status quo. In this way, Standage argues in his book, it does not cause revolutions, but can play a part in accelerating them. However, he argues that social media could also have the opposite effect. As pointed out by technology writer Evgeny Morozov in his criticism of ‘slacktivism’: why march when you can ‘like’ a movement on Facebook?