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?
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?