Social Media Began…. 2,000 Years Ago?

If you had asked me before MI621 when I thought the beginning of social media was I probably would have guessed that it started with MySpace or Xanga. Then in our first class we learned that the reply all button on email was when social media first took place on the internet. But what if social media began before the reply all button? What if it began 2,000 years ago in Rome?

roman pic

In his book Writing on the Wall: Social Media the First 2,000 Years, Tom Standage, the digital editor of the Economist, argues that the Romans were actually the first to use social media and that use of social media continued to surface throughout history even without the technological advancements of the internet.

Tom Standage defines social media as media you get from other people that allows you to have a distributed community or discussion. In his book he describes these “social media systems” and says,

The Romans did it with papyrus rolls and messengers; today hundreds of millions of people to 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.

The Romans and Their Rolls

In 51 B.C. the Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero was changing the way that people shared information; his writings were written on papyrus rolls and passed from person to person through a team of messengers (usually slaves). These writings were copied, annotated, commented on, and passed on through the chain of the literate Roman elite. However, for shorter distances, instead of using papyrus rolls, the Romans used wax tablets in wooden frames. Standage says that this piece of Roman innovation is the precursor to the iPad (I think that is a bit of a stretch).



The Romans also had their own social media-esque abbreviations. For example, SPD stood for salutem plurimam dicit, or sends many greetings – while it is more formal than ttyl or lyl, the abbreviation shares the same sentiment. And what about the lower class Romans? In Pompeii there was a graffiti wall where commoners wrote messages such as, ‘The man I am having dinner with is a barbarian,’ and ‘Atimetus got me pregnant’; are these not comments that we would implore today’s generation to never post on Facebook for their own good? 

Anne Boleyn’s Tumblr

Standage also notes that there were ancient forms of Twitter and Tumblr in the 16th century courts of Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I. In Boleyn’s Tudor court, young members would write in the Devonshire Manuscript and correspond in the form of poetry, gossiping on the pages and passing on the manuscript after leaving their comments. Sir John Harington became known as Queen Elizabeth’s “Saucy Godson” because of his humorous poetry. He wrote down and shared his one-liner wisecracks to his friends and family; could he be known today by his comedic Twitter handle @SaucyGodson?



 Martin Luther and Thomas Paine: Viral Bloggers?

The creation of the printing press created a social sharing environment for pieces of writing, as it made it easier for people to spread and discuss literature. Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses, which were widely distributed and discussed throughout Europe. Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” was read aloud and debated in town and anonymously in newspapers. These 18th century gazette comments are similar to forums and comments on a blog, and it is not far fetched to imagine Paine as a famous revolutionary political blogger. 

Social Media is Not New

It is clear that whether or not you agree that these examples count as pure forms of social media, they share traits and behaviors that are inherent in current forms of social media. Standage admits that while these older forms of social media lack certain attributes of modern social media (global, instant, searchable), you still don’t need a digital network to have social media; all you need is literacy and cheap distribution. Furthermore human nature stays the same, even though technology changes, and humans will always have an innate need to make connections and feel connected. Even before the internet, social media was taking place and it was allowing people to connect, share information, and express themselves.

So what can we learn from these ancient uses of social media? History allows us to learn from our past and be able to make changes for our future; Standage believes that we can learn important social media lessons from these historical forms of social media. Can we look back at the Romans and determine whether social media is a waste of time? Can we finally decide if social media is simply a form of distraction by studying the royal courts of the 16th century? Can we discover if social media can truly impact political change by learning from Martin Luther and Thomas Paine?


What do you think?

Are Standage’s comparisons are accurate? Are there historical lessons from ancient SM?

For more information on Writings on the Wall go to this NYT article or watch an interview with Tom Standage on TechCrunch.


  1. I was pretty skeptical after reading the title but once I read the whole story I would have to agree with Standage. I don’t see any reason why social media has to involve technology. When you really think about it, it’s is all about communication. I would love to hear Shirkey’s comments about this book. I’m sure he would disagree with some points. But in all fairness I would say Shirkey tends to define social media in more modern terms. Email, Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, they’re all technological forms of social media but I don’t think it has to be technological to be considered social media. I would say that overall, Standage’s comparisons are accurate and that historical social media offers a plethora of lessons about human development.

  2. Like Jamie said, I was quite skeptical when reading the title to the article. Though these are all valid points, I do believe a difficult time believing Standage in some of his arguments. Like you said Sydney, I believe he makes a huge stretch when claiming the Roman wax tablets could be similar to today’s iPads.

    I believe social media today can be defined by the ability to share news with people from around the world without censors restricting thought. Though some people people in developing countries may not have Internet access or even access to electricity, it is the fact that may more people today can connect with others than before. To me, social media has some sort of electronic, virtual message relayed to all sorts of people, and can be told immediately to others no matter their status. This means that social media does not have to come from a person with a higher skill set than you (though he or she can), but instead people can mutually share their understandings and ideas.

    I understand some of the points Standage makes, and I do believe these sorts of disruptions have changed history. Like he mentioned, many of these decrees given to all people were informing them of major events and have shaped the way we look at the world. What I think is revolutionary about social media today is the fact that instead of sharing a single event influence all subjects in a society, we can now share all parts of our lives to a global audience even if only a few in the audience will feel the impact in their daily lives.

  3. Sydney, really cool idea. I can see where Tom is coming from, but I’m not sure I agree with it. The scroll-and-messenger method of communicating “horizontally” is not social media in my eyes. Neither is the graffiti wall. Think of the amount of graffiti and art we have all over urban areas today — would we walk down the street tomorrow and associate those with social media?

    Social media, to me, is what the “reply all” button on email is: one person communicating to a large group of people instantaneously. “Instantaneous” is key for me. While individual responses and comments can be made after the fact, initially it is one person contacting a mass audience. It seems like most of the communicating from the Roman era happened only gradually as scrolls and manuscripts were passed along from person to person. This reminds me of a letter, petition, or passing along a good book to friends to later discuss together.

    I do agree overall, though, that there are some similarities between the broad span of communication that took place 2,000 years ago and that of today. The abbreviations you mentioned are pretty funny (interesting how that idea existed so long ago!), and the invention of the printing press did make wider distribution and communication on a greater scale possible. Ultimately, I am not sure I agree with Standage, but he makes a good argument.

  4. Unlike Jamie and Rob, skepticism wasn’t really my reaction to the title of your blog; I was more intrigued and actually inclined to agree to a certain degree. While I mostly think of social media in terms of technology, I agree that the points you and Standage have brought up show that human behavior has been inclined to be social and to share personal information like we do now with Facebook and Twitter and other platforms. Technically, the basic definition of a medium is a means of doing something so a social medium would be a means of being social, which is what the graffiti wall in Pompeii was and the Devonshire Manuscript was as well. In this way, social media has been around for centuries. Standage makes a valid point. I think if we graph patterns of social media including before the technological age, we can map out social behavior through different media and how it’s evolved.

  5. I think I agree most with what Taylor said about feeling like social media needs to be “instantaneous.” I don’t think that it is fair to make the generalization that all forms of communication and interaction among people constitute “social media.” I think that it is fair to coin a term to refer to a more technologically based medium and I think that’s whats happened with social media. It’s easy to find similarities between most forms of communication and social media, but I think in today’s society we use the term to refer to interactions using the Internet. Just because other forms of communication in the past may have resembled interactions we now have online, does not mean that we need to put them all in the same category. I think that when most people think of social media they think of technology and it has therefore become an essential aspect of the term. That is not to say though that Standage does not have interesting points, I just think they’re a lot of generalizations! Interesting post!

  6. Brook & Taylor – I had the same reaction, social media is definitely not synonymous with communication. I think part of what defines social media too is that it’s two-way. When you read a book or article in a hard copy of something, you are solely consuming that content, whereas with social media you can reply and interact. Social media allows content to be effortlessly reproduced and disseminated to a wide variety of audiences as well. Since scrolls and printed material avoid the written two way communication, I would not classify it as social media. Sydney – you did an awesome job covering this topic with lots of relevant information though – great post to make you think about social media from a unique perspective though!

  7. GREAT POST. Love it. Although I might disagree and say that social media actually goes back to Socrates and the Greeks (we’ll discuss this in a few weeks), but the point remains the same! I prefer the “long view” of social media that this suggests.

  8. What an interesting post Sydney! This definitely led me down a path wondering what I personally would consider to be “social media” and when it all started. Although I disagree with Taylor and Brooke about social media having to be instantaneous, I do think they have some good points about not having all communication categorized as social media. Perhaps the definition is one that has evolved over time. In today’s world where we have the ability to share instantly and to everyone, a graffiti wall would not be a social media medium. However, in a time when the internet did not exist, perhaps this was a perfect way for that society to have a social, non verbal, way of sharing their thoughts and comments. Honestly, how different is a Blog and the subsequent comments from a wall that others could write on?

    Perhaps ProfKane had the right notation by starting off our class this semester without defining social media. It seems we really don’t know where to draw the line.

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