Writing on the Wall

WotW US coverTHIN JULY 51BC the Roman statesman and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero arrived in Cilicia, in what is now south-east 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 counter-plotting 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 centralise power and seize it for themselves. But a new anti-corruption 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 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 their scribes before passing it on. Copies also circulated of the acta diurna 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.

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 rumours 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 travellers 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, a participant in a “social media” system: that is, an environment in which people can publish, discuss, recommend and share items of interest within a group of friends and associates, passing noteworthy items from one social circle to another. 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 connections, rather than being delivered vertically from an impersonal central source. This exchange of information allows discussion and debate to take place within a distributed community whose members may never meet each other in person.

Cicero’s web is just one of many historical antecedents of today’s social media. Other prominent examples include the circulation of letters and other documents in the early Christian church;  the torrent of printed tracts which circulated in 16th-century Germany, triggering the Reformation; the passing from hand to hand of gossip-laden poetry in the Tudor and Stuart courts; the duelling political pamphlets with which Royalists and Parliamentarians courted public opinion during the English Civil War; the first scientific journals and correspondence societies, which enabled far-flung scientists to discuss and build upon each other’s work; the handwritten poems and newsletters of pre-Revolutionary France, which spread gossip from Paris throughout the country; and the revolutionary pamphlets and local papers that rallied support for American independence. Such social-media systems arose frequently because, for most of human history, social networks were the dominant means by which information spread, in either spoken or written form.

All this may come as a surprise to modern internet users who assume that today’s media environment is unprecedented. But many of the ways we handle, consume and manipulate information, even in the internet era, build upon habits and conventions that date back centuries. Modern social media is, in fact, merely the latest example of a deep and rich tradition of media sharing. The aim of this book is to expose these ancient precursors, to provide a 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.

“This book will change the way you think about social media. It reveals that today’s techologies are helping us scratch a timeless itch to connect and share.” — Marc Andreessen, cofounder of Netscape, cofounder and general partner, Andreessen Horowitz

“Tom Standage’s gripping history shows that the era of mass media dominance that we grew up in was a two-century anomaly in the natural course of our culture. Media used to be social and is becoming even more so again.” — Chris Anderson, author of “Makers: The New Industrial Revolution”

“Tom Standage once again displays his ingenious gift for connecting our historical past to the debates and technologies of the present day. Writing on the Wall makes an entertaining and persuasive argument.” — Steven Johnson, author of “Future Perfect” and “Where Good Ideas Come From”

“On the Internet we continue an old tradition of social media, pioneered in the Roman Republic. Writing on the Wall shows how we’re retweeting the past at this very moment and inventing the future.” — Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist

“I’ve been a big fan of Standage’s ever since his book The Victorian Internet, about the rise of the telegraph, which shed a lot of light on network technologies while also being great fun. Now he’s done it again…buy his book!” — Paul Krugman

“What if new media aren’t as new as we assume — and old media not really old at all? A provocative book… Standage makes a convincing case.”  — New York Times

“[A] short and sparky history of information… Standage provides a useful reminder that, however much our material environment changes, our behaviour tends to remain the same.” — The Guardian

“Standage has just this one big point to make, but he makes it elegantly and instructively… what we tend to regard as the radiant novelty of the digital age may really be a rebirth.” — Wall Street Journal

“Makes a strong case that the 150 years or so when mass media centralised opinion and news and peddled it to passive readers and viewers were an aberration in the long historical domination of social media.” — Financial Times

“Packed with fascinating detail, Standage’s thesis will appeal to today’s tweeters.” — The Independent

“A thoroughly fascinating look at the evolution of social media.” — Booklist (starred review)

“Standage traces the rise of social media systems throughout history, finding interesting parallels hither and yon… [and] capably demonstrates that hand-wringing over how new technologies are coarsening public discourse is as old as the Parthenon, if not older.” — Washington Monthly

“Standage captures quite beautifully the essence of the human need to connect and interact, both its banality and world-altering power.” — Publishers Weekly

“Draws fascinating parallels between information dissemination throughout history and our current world of tweets and status updates… the constancy of human nature beneath the trappings of technology makes for an insightful readDiscover

“Entertaining and thought-provoking.” — Bookpage

“Tom Standage, the most illuminating of Britain’s technology writers, [is] the go-to man to identify the triggers for what comes next.” — Literary Review

“Compelling… a wonderful read.”  — Critical Margins

“Writing on the Wall: Social media—The First 2,000 Years” is published by Bloomsbury in the US, UK and Commonwealth countries. It can be ordered using the links in the right-hand column. For updates about the book and links about historical social media, visit the book’s Facebook page.


18 thoughts on “Writing on the Wall

  1. Congratulations Tom! If this doesn’t get me interested in history, nothing will! I’d be interested to see if any ideas from the past can be applied to modern day social media and if it has remained the same in essence, what that essence is. Keeping an eye out for it in India.

  2. These are interesting observations. However, my question is, does technology matter at all? Essentially, communication is SOCIAL and is always MEDIATED (whether through human body, light waves, sound waves, paper, or electrons). For the term “social media” to be a meaningful definition, we have to pick and choose what aspects of media we want to focus on. We consider social media a break from broadcast media precisely because these media utilize modern technologies to mediate the old type of communication (communication through social network) that had been mediated in very different ways (through paper or word of mouth). McLuhan’s “the media is the message” has become a cliche of sort, and he also said that media are extension of the human body. I suspect that his ideas do have a tendency of technological determinism, which I think we should be cautious about, but they do draw our attention to media and how technologies transform our way of living by specially and temporally extending human bodies to fulfill our desire to connect to each other more EFFECTIVELY and EFFICIENTLY.

    It’s interesting that we see again and again people who argue that new things are not new. If one really looks, nothing is really new. Everything happening now has a connection to the past. The communication style of Jesus is thought to be a broadcasting already, i.e., dissemination of information indiscriminately, as opposed to Socrates’ interpersonal communication, and writing is considered by many as an early form of broadcasting, so broadcast media are not just an creation of the 20th century.

    All that said, I still think the subject of this book is interesting and I’d like to read the book. Most importantly, it reminds us of what makes us human beings — our communities and the genuine connections we aspire to have with each other. Technologies can’t change these.

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