On Romans and their iPads

RGM, HolztŠfelchen

Today a review of “Writing on the Wall” appeared in the New York Times. Which is great, obviously. But almost as exciting (to me, at least) is that the NYT chose to illustrate the review with an image of a Roman wax tablet, taken from the book, and juxtaposed with an image of an iPad. Thus my “Roman iPad” joke, which always gets a laugh when I talk about the book, has reached its largest audience so far.

Yes, the Romans really did have their own version of the iPad. Instead of notebooks they jotted things down on wax tablets of various shapes and sizes, from small ones (the size of an iPhone 4) to big ones (the size of a big iPad, before the iPad Air showed up). The image at the top of this post is a particularly fine example, from the Roman-Germanic Museum in Cologne (to which I am indebted for the picture). It is the size, shape and aspect ratio of a modern iPad. (Note to Google: it’s a 4:3 aspect ratio rather than 16:9, so the Romans are with me when I say that I find 16:9 a bit odd.)

These tablets had a layer of wax inside a wooden frame. You’d use a stylus to scratch things into the wax, and flip the stylus over to use its flat end to smooth the wax and erase things when necessary. That’s why I like to say that the woman in the image below is using the Roman equivalent of a Samsung Galaxy Note 3. As you can see, several tablets were often bound together, like the pages in a book, to increase storage capacity. You can buy a modern replica, if you’re interested in trying this, or make your own.


If you were a wealthy Roman who wanted to read the news over breakfast, you might send a scribe down to the forum to jot down excerpts from the daily gazette, or acta diurna, onto one of these tablets. You could then copy highlights from the news to your friends: the text would be copied onto papyrus rolls and taken to them by messenger. They might then copy those news reports, in turn, to their own friends, adding their own comments or analysis. This is how the Roman social-media system worked.

Because the amount of space on a wax tablet or single sheet of papyrus was limited, the Romans used abbreviations. SPD, short for “SALUTEM PLURINAM DICIT” meant “says many greetings”, for example; if I was writing to someone called Mark I (or my scribe) might write TOM MARCO SPD (Tom, to Mark, says many greetings) at the top. Another abbreviation was used as a sign-off: SVBEEV, short for “SI VALES BENE EST EGO VALEO”, which meant “If you are well, that’s good; I’m well”. It was equivalent to TTFN or GTG today. Alas, there seems not to have been a Roman equivalent of LOL. But the Romans certainly had their own version of the iPad.

“Writing on the Wall” is out now!

“Writing on the Wall: Social Media — The First 2,000 Years” was published on October 10th in Britain and Commonwealth countries, and on October 15th in the United States. (To buy the book, click the links on the right.) I’m on the road promoting it for two weeks, starting in Seattle and ending up in New York. I talked about the book at Town Hall Seattle and at Powell’s in Portland, and next week I’m speaking at Harvard (see above) at 7pm on October 21st and at Barnes & Noble Tribeca at 6pm on October 23rd. But mostly I’ve been doing radio interviews (and some TV) and visiting tech firms, including Twitter, Facebook and Google, to spread the word that what they are doing is not as new as they might think. To be fair, Dick Costolo of Twitter, who I saw while at Twitter HQ, has compared Twitter with the agora or marketplace of ancient Greek city-states, so he’s been thinking along similar lines. So far the book has been reviewed by publications including the Guardian, Wall Street JournalIndependentFinancial Times and Literary Review. Having started work on this book in late 2010, I’m thrilled that it’s finally available on bookshelves, both physical and digital, and that people seem to be enjoying it — and agreeing with my contention that, as the Wall Street Journal puts it, “what we tend to regard as the radiant novelty of the digital age may really be a rebirth”.

“Share it like Cicero” expands

Cicero map 2As you can see, my “Share it like Cicero” tube map has expanded, with the addition of @robinsloan (who inspired me to cook up the scheme in the first place) and @magicandrew in the US; here’s a pic of the hand-over. Also, two copies of “Writing on the Wall” appeared in Canada, in the hands of @vivi0202 and @kirstinestewart. So far the most widely travelled copy is that of @kattekrab, who took it from Australia back to England and passed it to @pdjohnson. All this has required the creation of several new Tube lines. (If this makes no sense to you at all, here’s my explanation of the whole scheme.)

In other ancient social-media news, a cardinal at the Vatican claimed this week that Jesus Christ was the first person to use Twitter. “Writing on the Wall” explains that Cicero got there first, five decades earlier, however, and that the most effective user of social media in the early church was St Paul. Also this week Lloyd’s List announced that, 279 years after starting life as a wall post in a London coffeehouse, it would switch to all-digital distribution at the end of this year, thus moving from an ancient social-media platform to a modern one. Finally, a review of “Writing on the Wall” has appeared at Critical Margins.

Mapping “Share it like Cicero”

Cicero map 1

In June I proposed an unusual way to distribute a box of galley copies of my forthcoming book, “Writing on the Wall”. The book is about ancient social media, so the idea was to mimic the Roman book-distribution system, which involved the passing of books along social networks. The Romans used scribes to copy books before giving them to their friends; I’ve agreed to send out signed replacement copies to participants in the scheme, to replace the ones they’re passing on. After my initial post 296 people volunteered to take part, and I selected nine of them using a mysterious pseudo-random process and some dodgy Excel macros. Then, in August, I sent out nine copies. One went to Australia; two to Canada; two to the UK; one to India; and three to the US. Each one has a message inside explaining how the experiment works, and inviting participants to document their sharing of the book on the social-media platform of their choice.

Shockingly, it seems to be working. Of the nine copies, four (in Australia, Britain and India) have been seen in the wild (ie, on Twitter) as their recipients have revealed that they are participating in the experiment. (The North American copies seem to be taking longer to arrive.) The recipient of one of the British copies, @wadds, tweeted that he was reading the book and, when he’d finished it, posted a review on his blog (thanks, Stephen). He then sent the book to @mediations in Malmö, Sweden. The other British copy went to @acotgreave, who tweeted a picture when it arrived and has since passed it on (as seen in this photo) to @DataRemixed at a conference in the US. In India, @chattychd read the book, posted this review on Facebook and then passed it on to his friend @vaibhavmehan, who is also in Chandigarh. In Australia, @kattekrab has tweeted some thoughts as she reads the book.

I tried plotting the movements of these four books on a map, but quickly realised that I was going to have to take some cartographical liberties to make it legible. So I took my cue from the London Tube map instead. The result is shown above. I plan to keep updating the map as the North American books appear and all the books continue to move around. I like the idea of using modern social media to track my recreation of one of its earliest forms. Roman publishing was all about social networking, and Roman books were a form of social media.

So if you want to read the book before it comes out, you can see who has copies of it and suggest that they might want to pass their copy to you next by consulting the map or searching on Twitter for #wotw2013. Participants in the experiment will get a free signed copy from me (until I run out of galleys, at least), but there’s now another way you can (sort of) get a signed copy, because this week my publisher Bloomsbury launched a book-plate offer. Pre-order the book and we’ll send you a signed book plate to stick in it. You can find the order links in the right-hand column.

In other book-related news, my TEDx talk based on the book, “Lessons from ancient social media”, was picked as TEDx talk of the day on September 6th. And the first formal review of the book has appeared: Booklist gave “Writing on the Wall” a starred review, calling it “a thoroughly fascinating look at the evolution of social media”.

My TEDx talk on “lessons from ancient social media”


The video of my TEDxOxbridge talk on “lessons from ancient social media”, based on my forthcoming book “Writing on the Wall” is finally available! I’m quite pleased with it, even if they did cut out my bad joke at the beginning (“Good morning everyone — It’s great to be here in the historic city of, er, Oxbridge.”) Anyway, the talk gives a good flavour of the book, with three examples of ancient social media environments (Romans, Luther, coffeehouses) and three lessons from history that we can apply today. The book, of course, contains lots more examples and concludes with many more lessons.

I would really like to do a longer, geekier version of this talk at SXSWi next March, under the title “Tweet like a Roman: Social media’s long history”. If that’s something you’d like to see, please vote for my proposal on the SXSWi site. Fingers crossed! Finally, the “Share it like Cicero” winners have been picked and notified, and the galleys are going in the post this week.

Share it like Cicero: How Roman authors used social networking

RomansOne of the stories I tell in “Writing on the Wall” is about the way the Roman book-trade worked. There were no printing presses, so copying of books, which took the form of multiple papyrus rolls, was done entirely by hand, by scribes, most of whom were slaves. There were no formal publishers either, so Roman authors had to rely on word-of-mouth recommendations and social distribution of their works via their networks of friends and acquaintances.

It was crucial to choose the right person to dedicate the book to. The ideal candidate would be famous, influential and somewhat vain, so that he would be sure to mention the book to his friends, thus ensuring that people heard about it. He would also have an impressive library with plenty of traffic from visiting scholars and philosophers. The new book, prominently displayed in the library as a set of rolls in an elegant presentation box, would then be seen by people who might take pick up a papyrus roll and start reading it. If they were sufficiently impressed, they might ask the library’s owner for their own copy, which he would ask his scribes to produce. So the ideal dedicatee also needed a staff of reliable copyists. With luck, the original copy of the book would then produce offspring which would, in turn, end up in other libraries where they could be consulted and copied. The author might also put a few other copies of his book into circulation, giving them to friends and asking them to read them and pass them on, and make their own copies if they wanted to.

This explains, in part, why Cicero dedicated his book “Academia” to Varro, a scholar and prolific author who had a large and popular library. On another occasion Cicero wrote a rather fawning letter to his well-placed contemporary Quintus Cornificius, asking him to endorse one of his books and recommend it to his friends. But endorsements were not the only way to generate interest in a new book. Cicero’s friend Atticus hosted dinner parties for him, at which excerpts, or sometimes even an entire book, would be read out (“whenever I write anything, I shall entrust the advertising to you”, Cicero told him). By the end of the first century BC a more formal way to announce and promote a new book, called the recitatio, had established itself. This was a launch party at which a book (or excerpts from it) were read to an invited audience, either by the author or by a skilled slave known as a lector. Once the reading was over, a presentation copy of the book would be given to the dedicatee, and other less fancy copies would be made available to the author’s friends and associates. The work was then considered to have been published, in the sense that it had been formally released by its author for reading, copying and circulation. At that point the book was on its own and would either spread — or not, depending on whether the author had succeeded in generating sufficient buzz.

The sign of a successful book was that booksellers would have copies of it made for sale to the public — something they would only do if they were sure people would buy them. Roman authors, then, wanted their books to be as widely copied by as many people as possible, and ideally wanted copies to end up being put on sale, even though the author himself would not benefit financially. Instead, Roman authors benefited from their books in other ways: they were a way to achieve fame, highlight or strengthen the author’s social connection with an influential patron, get a better job, and generally advance in Roman society. Roman publishing was all about social networking, and Roman books were a form of social media.

Because my new book is about parallels between modern and historical social media, I thought it might be fun to try an experiment. (I was inspired by Robin Sloan, who did something similar for the launch of his book Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and who kindly gave me some advice.) My plan is send a few galley copies of “Writing on the Wall” out into the world and invite people to read them, scribble in them, tweet their favourite bits, or whatever. But this is the crucial part: I would then ask them to pass each galley on to a friend who they think might appreciate it, by hand or by post, and tell me where each book is going so I can chart its travels. Of course, it’s possible that people might actually like the book and prefer not to give it up. Rather than using scribes to make copies, I have a simple alternative: I will send everyone who passes on a galley a replacement, which will be signed, until I run out of copies. I have a few dozen sitting in a box, and this seems like an interesting way to distribute them — Roman-style.

Update July 16th: Thanks to everyone who signed up. Entries are now closed.  I’ll draw some names from a virtual hat and send the galleys out in early August.

Update August 19th: The lucky winners have been picked using a mysterious, pseudo-random process involving dodgy Excel macros, and have been informed by e-mail. The galleys go in the post this week!

(Image via Wikimedia)