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New media, old idea

Rajiv Shirali 

Social Media - The First 2,000 Years
Tom Standage

278 pages; Rs 399

The Roman statesman Cicero, a contemporary of Julius Caesar, checked his mail (written on papyrus rolls and delivered by messengers) several times a day; in ancient Rome wall posts were actually written on the walls of villas; the world's first post that went viral was Martin Luther's famous Ninety-Five Theses, which he nailed to the door of a German church in 1517, unleashing the Reformation; the first tweets were almost certainly those by Sir John Harrington, a courtier of the Elizabethan era and a godson of the English queen (he came to be known as "Saucy Godson" for his quips); while a series of pamphlets by the English poet John Milton in the 1640s - variously attacking the Church of England, arguing for the legalisation of divorce, and defending the right to free speech - were history's first blogs.

So writes Tom Standage, digital editor at The Economist, and an author of six history books, in Writing on the Wall. He argues that social media was not born in the 21st century; it had deep historical roots that go back to pre-Christian Roman times. Other historical counterparts of today's social media included political pamphlets during the English Civil War in the 1640s; news sheets distributed in European coffee houses during the Enlightenment; pamphlets - including Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" - and local papers during the struggle for American independence; and handwritten newsletters in pre-revolutionary France.

The ancients may not have had Facebook and Twitter, but they had a robust social media system - "an environment in which information was passed from one person to another along social connections, to create a distributed discussion or community". Sharing information with other people within our social networks is "a central part of being human"; it has been happening for more than two millennia, with only the methods changing over time, writes Mr Standage.

One of the most absorbing chapters in the book is the one on coffee houses, which, from the 1650s on, became an important social platform for sharing news, messages and gossip. They came to be used as mailing addresses; regulars at a particular coffee house would drop in once or twice a day to drink coffee, hear the latest news and check to see if there was any new mail waiting for them.

Coffee houses provided the inspiration for more enduring institutions too. Newton's Principia Mathematica was the end result of several coffee house discussions, while Adam Smith wrote much of The Wealth of Nations in the British Coffee House. Jonathan's coffee house, where merchants and traders met, gave birth to the London Stock Exchange. Likewise, Lloyd's coffee house, where shipowners, merchants and underwriters met, became the Society of Lloyd's in 1771, and survives to this day as Lloyd's of London, the world's leading insurance market.

But then social media lost its way in the long interlude between the birth of the mass media (with its model of amassing a large audience and then selling its "attention" to advertisers) - which Mr Standage dates very precisely to the launch of the New York Sun in 1833 - and the rise of digital media in the 1990s. During this "mass-media parenthesis" of a century and a half, communication became a one-way process, with readers, listeners and viewers reduced to passive consumers.

Mr Standage argues that Facebook, Twitter and their like are, truly speaking, not inventions of the 21st century but represent a "rebirth of social media in the internet age" and a return "to the way things used to be". Referring to the distinction commonly made between "new" media based on digital technologies and the "old" media that came before it, he makes a more nuanced distinction: in the centuries prior to the start of the old media era in 1833, what held sway was the "really old" media, which disseminated information among people along social networks. Twenty-first-century internet media, Mr Standage writes, has lots in common with "really old" media - such as the Romans' wax tablets on which scribes wrote with a stylus, 17th-century pamphlets and 18th-century coffee houses - and nothing at all in common with 19th-century newspapers or 20th-century radio and television.

Social media's role in triggering protests and revolutions did not begin with the Arab Spring either, Mr Standage argues. Pamphlets, letters and local newspapers played a key role in the Reformation in 16th-century Europe, and in the American and French revolutions. "In each case, simmering resentments meant that revolution would have happened sooner or later anyway; the use of social media merely helped the process along." This can be said of Tunisia and Egypt as well.

Mr Standage concedes that social media, by enhancing the ease with which people can express their views online, has led to a "coarsening" of public discourse. However, he concludes - as did John Milton in his 1644 pamphlet Areopagitica, an eloquent defence of the principle of freedom of expression - that through greater freedom of expression both good and bad ideas will proliferate, making it more likely that bad ideas will be challenged and allowing people to make up their minds. Paraphrasing Milton, he concludes, "let truth and falsehood grapple" in the battlefield of ideas.

First Published: Thu, November 28 2013. 21:17 IST