Through his love of history and technology, The Economist’s Tom Standage provides us a valuable perspective not just on social media, but how humans communicate.
Social media is unlike anything we’ve seen before, right? Not according to Tom Standage. He puts forward the idea that networked conversations between groups of people, where ideas are shared, circulated, commented up, tweaked and shared further are part of our history. He suggests that mass media, the broadcasting of messages at scale, is an historic aberration.
Unusually for a book grounded in history, Writing on the Wall begins with the science of the neocortex in primates that suggests humans are inherently social creatures. Yet more science looks the fundamental building blocks of communication – how many people a person can really know and how humans have worked with and around this limitation. This introduction is so interesting in itself that it spurred me to look up additional material on the subject.
We then move from the science to the guts of the topic. From Cicero’s Rome to through to the Reformation and then on to the rise of coffee houses, the book is chockfull of historical examples of communication that has the core aspects of social media, albeit none of its technological sophistication.
Cicero’s speeches and letters were variously copied, shared or sent along with additional letters by others adding their opinions. They passed across the Roman Empire through networks of messengers, favours from friends, merchants and traders who travelled across the Empire. The media was slow compared to modern communication but very much social.
I won’t guide you through all the examples Standage provides but the variety and the depth is exceptional.
It would be wrong to dismiss the book as a guided history tour. As well as looking at the technical aspects of how we communicate, the author also looks at how social media is seen to affect society through the ages. The book is peppered with examples, the most memorable of which come from the advent of coffee houses.
Oxford dons worried coffee houses promoted idleness and diverted students from their studies. While others complained that Christians were being influenced through the consumption of a “Muslim drink”.
The central point of the book is that over the past 2,000 years, broadcast media has dominated only a couple of centuries; it is an aberration.
The case is: we are naturally social beings; throughout history we have communicated in such a way; and we now have the tools to do so at scale. It is compelling.