Social media: history retweets itself

Author Tom Standage tells Saira Khan why we can learn a lot about Facebook and Twitter through their offline ancestors.

Saira Khan

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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?

The invention of the coffeehouse in the Arab world in the middle of the seventeenth century provided a physical form of platforms like Twitter, a place where people could exchange news, poems and pamphlets. Just as new environments extended the reach of social media, so did printing, and eventually the internet.

One important difference is that social media are no longer the exclusive realm of society’s elites. ‘When you get to coffeehouses’, Standage tells me, ‘the social-media platforms of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they were supposedly open to all (“gentleman, mechanic, lord and scoundrel mix”, as one contemporary account puts it), but in practice they were still dominated by rich men. The great thing about modern social media is that for the first time, the internet means there is a real chance it will become universal. That’s an extraordinary shift: the ability to publish material, and potentially reach a huge audience, will be available to everyone. That has got to be a good thing, because its benefits will not be limited to a select few.’

If the internet has brought the democratisation of social media, it certainly seems to have brought widespread abuse, too. ‘Historically that has always been blamed on the technology itself, the same happened with printing, leading to calls for restrictions’, he says. ‘Technology is acting as an amplifier for human tendencies, some of which are unpleasant’.

In 1641, there was an explosion of criticism in England due to Charles I’s rule without Parliament. Politics entered the public forum in pamphlets in a great interconnecting web, which referenced, or were in dialogue with, other pamphlets, much like blog posts today. This raises another familiar issue: how much can we trust blogs? Standage’s conclusion is built on John Milton’s argument in his publication Areopagitica, which argued for freedom of expression: that all opinions should be heard, so we can separate truth from illusion. As Milton puts it, ‘let her [Truth] and Falsehood grapple’.

The nineteenth century saw the development of mass media and centralisation of the flow of information; newspapers grew in size and began employing full-time journalists. This meant that readers were no longer seen as participants in the conversation. However, even during this anomalous time in the progression of social media, similarities to today’s internet discourse could be seen. With the invention of the telegraph and Morse code, journalists chatted and told jokes over the wire, even playing chess when there were no messages to transmit. They also made friends and engaged in romances with others they met online. However, when broadcast came, media became an increasingly one-way medium.

Everything changed when the internet came about in the early 1980s. From this stemmed the first blogs in the early 90s, the formation of social networking sites like Friendster in the early Noughties, and eventually Facebook, Twitter and YouTube today, where billions of people are involved in discourse over the internet. Authors, who were once a select minority, are now over a billion strong.

Standage writes that it was a once assumed that social media led to freedom and democracy. However, during the French revolution, the lawless freedom of the press resulted in much tyranny, too; by 1793, writers such as Marat were calling for the execution of their opponents, rather than for discourse. A free press is a good thing, but that doesn’t mean that such a press will promote a free society. In America, it revealed an underlying consensus, while in France, it revealed divisions in the direction of the revolution. In modern-day China, it allows the government to track down dissidents.

Of course, Standage recognises the fundamental differences between social media today and that of the Roman times; it is now ‘global, instant and searchable’, but he argues that it ‘enable[s] 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’ in a way that is very similar to the social media seen before the nineteenth century. Although the similarities are not obvious and the analogy is not perfect, Writing on the Wall provides a useful, well-written and clearly explained history of social media that allows us to see its tendencies more clearly. The book concludes with the statement that whatever form social media takes in the future, it has been around for thousands of years, and is here to stay.

When asked whether he believes, on balance, that social media is a good thing, Standage replies: ‘I think the greatest benefit of social media is to boost collaboration and innovation. Matt Ridley has described innovation as what happens when ideas have sex, and modern social-media platforms, like coffeehouses in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, have huge potential to accelerate that process and boost innovation in science, technology, medicine and business. That’s what I’m most excited about.’

Saira Khan is a student at the University of Oxford and a former spiked intern.

Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years, by Tom Standage, is published by Bloomsbury. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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