Social Media, Pre-Internet

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Tom Standage, digital editor at the Economist, author of A History of the World in 6 Glasses and Writing on the Wall: Social Media - The First 2,000 Years (Bloomsbury USA, 2013), finds that papyrus rolls and Twitter have a lot in common as he traces the history of instant communication from ancient times to today.

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Excerpt: Writing on the Wall


Not to know what has been transacted in former times is to be always a child. If no use is made of the labors of past ages, the world must remain always in the infancy of knowledge. —Marcus Tullius Cicero

IN JULY 51 b.c. the Roman statesman and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero arrived in Cilicia, in what is now southeast Turkey, to take up the post of proconsul, or regional governor. Cicero had been deeply reluctant to leave the bustle of Rome, where he was a central figure in the plotting and counterplotting of Roman politics, and he intended to return as soon as was decently possible. The burning question of the day was whether Julius Caesar, commander of Rome’s armies in the west, would make a grab for power by marching on the city. Cicero had spent his career trying to defend the political system of the Roman republic, with its careful division of powers and strict limits on the authority of any individual, from Caesar and others who wished to centralize power and seize it for themselves. But a new anticorruption law required Cicero and other trustworthy elder statesmen to take up posts as provincial governors. Fortunately, even in distant Cilicia, Cicero had the means to stay in touch with the goings- on in Rome— because the Roman elite had developed an elaborate system to distribute information.

At the time there were no printing presses and no paper. Instead, information circulated through the exchange of letters and other documents which were copied, commented on, and shared with others in the form of papyrus rolls. Cicero’s own correspondence, one of the best- preserved collections of letters from the period, shows that he exchanged letters constantly with his friends elsewhere, keeping them up to date with the latest political machinations, passing on items of interest from others, and providing his own commentary and opinions. Letters were often copied, shared, and quoted in other letters. Some letters were addressed to several people and were written to be read aloud, or to be posted in public for general consumption.

When Cicero or another politician made a noteworthy speech, he could distribute it by making copies available to his close associates, who would read it and pass it on to others. Many more people might then read the speech than had heard it being delivered. Books circulated in a similar way, as sets of papyrus rolls passed from person to person. Anyone who wished to retain a copy of a speech or book would have it transcribed by scribes before passing it on. Copies also circulated of the acta diurna (the “daily acts,” or state gazette), the original of which was posted on a board in the Forum in Rome each day and contained summaries of political debates, proposals for new laws, announcements of births and deaths, the dates of public holidays, and other official information. As he departed for Cilicia, Cicero asked his friend and protégé Marcus Caelius Rufus to send him copies of each day’s gazette along with his letters. But this would be just part of Cicero’s information supply. “Others will write, many will bring me news, much too will reach me even in the way of rumor,” Cicero wrote.

With information flitting from one correspondent to another, this informal system enabled information to penetrate to the farthest provinces within a few weeks at most. News from Rome took around five weeks to reach Britain in the west and seven weeks to reach Syria in the east. Merchants, soldiers, and officials in distant parts would circulate information from the heart of the republic within their own social circles, sharing extracts from letters, speeches, or the state gazette with their friends and passing news and rumors from the frontier back to their contacts in Rome. There was no formal postal service, so letters had to be carried by messengers or given to friends, traders, or travelers heading in the right direction. The result was that Cicero, along with other members of the Roman elite, was kept informed by a web of contacts— the members of his social circle— all of whom gathered, filtered, and distributed information for each other. To modern eyes this all seems strangely familiar. Cicero was, to use today’s Internet jargon, participating in a “social media” system: that is, an environment in which information was passed from one person to another along social connections, to create a distributed discussion or community. The Romans did it with papyrus rolls and messengers; today hundreds of millions of people do the same things rather more quickly and easily using Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other Internet tools. The technologies involved are very different, but these two forms of social media, separated by two millennia, share many of the same underlying structures and dynamics: they are two- way, conversational environments in which information passes horizontally from one person to another along social networks, rather than being delivered vertically from an impersonal central source.

Cicero’s web is just one of many historical antecedents of today’s social media. Other notable examples include the circulation of letters and other documents in the early Christian church; the torrent of printed tracts that circulated in sixteenth- century Germany at the start of the Reformation; the exchange and copying of gossip- laden poetry in the Tudor and Stuart courts; the dueling political pamphlets with which Royalists and Parliamentarians courted public opinion during the English Civil War; the stream of news sheets and pamphlets that coursed through Enlightenment coffee houses; the first scientific journals and correspondence societies, which enabled far-flung scientists to discuss and build upon each other’s work; the pamphlets and local papers that rallied support for American independence; and the handwritten poems and newsletters of prerevolutionary France, which spread gossip from Paris throughout the country. Such social- media systems arose frequently because, for most of human history, social networks were the dominant means by which new ideas and information spread, in either spoken or written form. Over the centuries, the power, reach, and inclusivity of these social- media systems steadily increased.

But then, starting in the mid- nineteenth century, everything changed. The advent of the steam- powered printing press, followed in the twentieth century by radio and television, made possible what we now call “mass media.” These new technologies of mass dissemination could supply information directly to large numbers of people with unprecedented speed and efficiency, but their high cost meant that control of the flow of information became concentrated in the hands of a select few. The delivery of information assumed a one- way, centralized, broadcast pattern that overshadowed the tradition of two-way, conversational, and social distribution that had come before. Vast media empires grew up around these mass- media technologies, which also fostered a sense of national identity and allowed autocratic governments to spread propaganda more easily than ever before. In the past de cade, however, the social nature of media has dramatically reasserted itself. The Internet has enabled a flowering of easy- to- use publishing tools and given social media unprecedented reach and scale, enabling it to compete with broadcast media and emerge from its shadow. The democratization of publishing made possible by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social platforms has been hugely disruptive for mass- media companies and, more importantly, is beginning to have far- reaching social and political effects. The reemergence of social media, now supercharged by digital networks, represents a profound shift not just within the media, but within society as a whole.

And it has raised a host of difficult questions. Have new forms of social media led to a trivialization and coarsening 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 that can be ignored?

This book will look for answers to these questions by considering a series of social- media systems that arose in very different times and places, but are linked by the common thread that they are based on the person- to- person sharing of information. These early forms of social media were involved in many of history’s great revolutions. Concerns about the trivialization of public discourse, and the belief that new forms of media are dangerously distracting, go back centuries, as do the debates about the regulation of social- media systems and their ability to bring about social and political change. By examining the analog antecedents of today’s digital social media, we can use history to cast new light on modern debates. At the same time, our modern experience of social media enables us to see the past with new eyes. Historical figures including Saint Paul, Martin Luther, and Thomas Paine are revealed as particularly adept users of social- media systems, with consequences that reverberate to this day.

All this will come as a surprise to modern Internet users who may assume that today’s social- media environment is unprecedented. But many of the ways in which we share, consume, and manipulate information, even in the Internet era, build upon habits and conventions that date back centuries. Today’s social- media users are the unwitting heirs of a rich tradition with surprisingly deep historical roots. Exposing these ancient precursors and tracing the story of the rise, fall, and rebirth of social media over the past two thousand years provides an illuminating new perspective on the history of Western media. It reveals that social media does not merely connect us to each other today— it also links us to the past.

From the book Writing on the Wall. Copyright (c) 2013 by Tom Standage. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury USA. All rights reserved.