Social Media Is Old News

Justin Peters is intrigued by Tom Standage’s Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years, which argues that “modern users of Twitter and Pinterest are ‘the unwitting heirs of a rich tradition with surprisingly deep historical roots.'” Andrew Hill elaborates:

Letters used to be exchanged with the regularity of email, with messages sometimes sent and received many times daily. In 1910, each person in Britain sent on average an extraordinary 116.7 items of mail. What we think of as a 21st-century phenomenon – social media – is rather “a return to the way things used to be”, claims Tom Standage in Writing on the Wall. … In his account, Cicero’s letters survived because they were copied and passed on to others. “Cicero and his web of contemporaries became so used to exchanging information by letter, with messengers coming and going throughout the day, that they considered it an extension of spoken conversation,” Standage writes.

The parallels with modern social media are clear.

“How Luther Went Viral” is the title of the chapter about how Martin Luther’s 95 theses were circulated, at a time when the number of editions of pamphlets was the equivalent to “the number of Likes, retweets, reblogs, +1s, or page views” a piece of content generates online today. The social networks of the past, such as the coffee-houses of London in the 18th century, had their critics, who condemned them in strikingly similar terms to those used by 21st-century sceptics, for “distracting people and encouraging them to waste time sharing trivia with their friends when they ought to be doing useful work”. Standage makes a strong case that the 150 years or so when mass media – from newspapers to television – centralised opinion and news and peddled it to passive readers and viewers were an aberration in the long historical domination of social media.