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Shared journals were an early form of social media, and the mass-media era may have been a historical aberration. These were two of the claims made by Lee Humphreys, a communications and media researcher at Cornell University, who gave a talk this week at Microsoft Research’s Social Media Collective. I agree with her on both counts, of course, though I would trace the sharing of journals back further, to the commonplace books of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Humphreys has examined in detail how people in the 19th century would share their diaries with visiting families and friends by reading aloud, in order to tell them what had been going on in their lives. She has also analysed the diary entries of Charlie Mac, a soldier in the American Civil War, which he copied out and sent home as letters to his family (and anyone else they wanted to share them with). Women in the 19th century, she suggests, kept journals as a way to be remembered, a form of self-expression and self-empowerment; it was only in the early 20th century that diaries and journals came to be seen as private documents. Today’s blogs and social-media updates therefore mark a return to a tradition of social sharing of personal writing. One consequence of this argument is that it undermines the notion that today’s social-media users are self-obsessed to a historically unprecedented degree. It also highlights the fact that social media is not a new phenomenon.

In my forthcoming book “Writing on the Wall” I make a similar argument about an earlier form of journal, the commonplace book. This was a kind of scrapbook, popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, into which people would copy items of interest to create a personal trove of valuable information. Commonplace books that survive from the Tudor period contain a huge variety of texts, including letters, poems, medical remedies, prose, jokes, ciphers, riddles, quotations and drawings. Sonnets, ballads and epigrams jostle with diary entries, recipes, lists of ships or Cambridge colleges and transcriptions of speeches. Collecting useful snippets of information so that they could be easily retrieved when needed, or re-read to spark new ideas and connections, was one of the functions of a commonplace book. But the practice of maintaining a commonplace book and exchanging texts with others also served as a form of self-definition: which poems or aphorisms you chose to copy into your book or to pass on to your correspondents said a lot about you, and the book as a whole was a reflection of your character and personality.

People would sometimes lend their commonplace books or miscellanies to their friends, who could then page through the entries and copy anything of interest into their own books. The similarities and overlaps between several manuscript collections compiled at Oxford University indicate widespread sharing of both individual texts and entire collections among students and their tutors, for example. Like internet users setting up blogs or social-media profiles for the first time, compilers of commonplace books seem to have relished the opportunities their newfound literacy gave them for projecting a particular image of themselves to their peers. Only a minority of the texts that people circulated were original compositions; most material was quoted from other sources. The same is true of modern social-media systems: posting links and snippets found elsewhere is standard practice on blogs, Facebook and Twitter, and on some platforms, such as Pinterest and Tumblr, more than 80% of items shared are “repins” or “reblogs” of items previously posted by other users. Then as now, people enjoyed being able to articulate their interests and define themselves by selectively compiling and resharing content created by others. The mere act of sharing something can, in other words, be a form of self-expression—something that was as true centuries ago as it is today. (So feel free to tweet, Like or reblog this post!)

Update: Mathew Ingram at paidcontent.org examines the “mass-media era was an accident of history” idea, quoting me among others

(Picture credit: Commonplace book from the James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, via Flickr)

WotW US coverTHMy next book, “Writing on the Wall: Social Media—The First 2,000 Years” will be published in October 2013. You can read a chunk of the introduction, which explains what the book is about, here, and you can also get a flavour of the book from these excerpts on coffeehouses as 17th-century social-media platforms and how Martin Luther “went viral”.

The book’s aim is to examine the historical precursors of today’s social-media systems, which date (in my view) back to the Roman period. That was why the working title of the book was “Cicero’s Web”, but that title made it sound as though the whole book was about Roman media. So the final title is “Writing on the Wall”, which can be interpreted in multiple overlapping ways. Chiefly, it can be read both as a reference to the Biblical story of Belshazzar and as a reference to writing on a Facebook “wall”, which gives a sense of the book’s historical sweep (something that is also signalled on the cover by the use of letters in styles associated with different media). There’s also a third, more subtle meaning that relates to the ominous implications of the rebirth of social media for mass-media companies that arose in the industrial era, predicated on the high cost of delivering information to large audiences. The conclusion of the book is that the mass-media era was a historical anomaly, a point I have made elsewhere. Indeed, it might better be termed the “mass-media parenthesis”.

The book will be published throughout the English-speaking world by Bloomsbury. Having a single global publisher in English ensures that the book will have the same title, cover and publication date everywhere, which I think is vital for a book of this nature. You can preorder it using the links in the right-hand column.


As well as writing a new book this year, I’ve also been making an album with my band, Sebastopol. It’s a pretty long and drawn out process, but the heavy lifting was done in just a few days in a basement studio in Camberwell. After that it’s overdubs, mixing, mastering and so forth. But unlike writing a book, where I’m closely involved with every stage, this is a team effort, and my bandmates Nick and Phil (notably Phil, who is both guitarist and manager) share the load. I’m on drums, by the way; we’re a guitar-bass-drums three-piece, signed to an indie label called Warm Fuzz. Anyway, you can hear and download a sample track, “Send the Boats”, on our band website, and the album, “Hello All Stations, This is Zero” is out on September 3rd (Amazon link). We’re playing several gigs to promote the album over the next few weeks, starting at the Hope & Anchor in Islington on August 18th.

What does this have to do with the history of technology? Nothing at all. Actually, that’s not quite true. The album cover features a photo of Alan Turing in 1951 in front of a Ferranti computer. We went for a 1940s vibe with the album design and styling, in part because of the similarities between then and now. It was a time of austerity, and at the same time a computer revolution was getting under way. I did quite a lot of Photoshop on the cover image to clean it up. We put some Morse code onto the cover, too. So in some ways this brings together a lot of my interests. But so much for the subtext. I hope you like the music.

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Update June 2013: I wrote an Op-Ed on this topic for the New York Times, which draws modern lessons from the 17th-century concerns about the distractions of coffeehouses.

Here’s an extract from my forthcoming book (to be published in October 2013) on the prehistory of social media, from the Roman period to the present day. (A previous extract, about Martin Luther and social media, is here.) You know how you can easily lose track of time while checking Twitter and Facebook? And how people worry that social media is distracting people from doing real work (aka “social notworking”)? The same thing happened in the 17th century with coffeehouses, a new social-media platform where people went to read and discuss the news:

With the promise of a constant and unpredictable stream of news, messages and gossip, coffeehouses offered an exciting and novel platform for sharing information. So seductive was this new social environment — you never knew what you might learn on your next visit, or who you might meet — that coffeehouse denizens found themselves whiling away hours in reading and discussion, oblivious to the passage of time. “Thence to the coffeehouse” appears frequently in the celebrated diary of Samuel Pepys, an English public official. His entry for January 11th, 1664 gives a flavour of the cosmopolitan, serendipitous atmosphere that prevailed within the coffeehouses of the period, where matters both trivial and profound were discussed:

Thence to the Coffee-house, whither comes Sir W. Petty and Captain Grant, and we fell in talke (besides a young gentleman, I suppose a merchant, his name Mr Hill, that has travelled and I perceive is a master in most sorts of musique and other things) of musique; the universal character; art of memory… and other most excellent discourses to my great content, having not been in so good company a great while, and had I time I should covet the acquaintance of that Mr Hill… The general talke of the towne still is of Collonell Turner, about the robbery; who, it is thought, will be hanged.

Enthusiasm for coffeehouses was not universal, however, and some observers regarded them as a worrying development. They grumbled that Christians had taken to a Muslim drink instead of traditional English beer, and fretted that the livelihoods of tavern-keepers might be threatened. But most of all they lamented that coffeehouses were distracting people who ought to be doing useful work, rather than networking and sharing trivia with their acquaintances.

When coffee became popular in Oxford and the coffeehouses selling it began to multiply, the university authorities objected, fearing that coffeehouses were promoting idleness and diverting students from their studies. Anthony Wood, an Oxford antiquarian, was among those who denounced the enthusiasm for the new drink. “Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none follow it now in the university?” he asked. “Answer: Because of coffee-houses, where they spend all their time.” Similar concerns were voiced in Cambridge, where one observer noted that

it is become a custom after chapel to repair to one or other of the coffee houses (for there are divers), where hours are spent in talking, and less profitable reading of newspapers, of which swarms are continually supplied from London. And the scholars are so greedy after news (which is none of their business) that they neglect all for it, and it is become very rare for any of them to go directly to his chamber after prayers without first doing his suit at the coffee-house, which is a vast loss of time grown out of a pure novelty. For who can apply close to a subject with his head full of the din of a coffee-house?

Inevitably, the opposition to coffeehouses found expression in pamphlet form. The author of “The Grand Concern of England Explained” (1673) grumbled that coffeehouses had

done great mischiefs to the nation, and undone many of the King’s subjects: for they, being great enemies to diligence and industry, have been the ruin of many serious and hopeful young gentlemen and tradesmen, who, before frequenting these places, were diligent students or shopkeepers, extraordinary husbands of their time as well as money; but since these houses have been set up, under pretence of good husbandry, to avoid spending above one penny or two-pence at a time, have gone to these coffee-houses; where, meeting friends, they have sat talking three or four hours; after which, a fresh acquaintance appearing, and so one after another all day long, hath begotten fresh discourse, so that frequently they have staid five or six hours together in one of them; all which time their studies or shops have been neglected.

The coffeehouse bore, the know-it-all political commentator and the businessman spreading false rumours are all stock figures in the satire of the period. Another pamphlet, “The character of a coffee-house” (1673) mocks the coffeehouse as “an exchange, where haberdashers of political small-wares meet, and mutually abuse each other, and the publick, with bottomless stories, and headless notions; the rendezvous of idle pamphlets, and persons more idly employed to read them… The room stinks of tobacco worse than hell of brimstone, and is as full of smoke as their heads that frequent it.”

The wheels are turning on my new book. “How Luther went viral” is an article I wrote for the Christmas issue of The Economist, extracted from one of the book’s early chapters, on the use of social media by Martin Luther. It was very heartening to see such a positive reaction to the piece on Facebook and Twitter, and I’m amused that people are still tweeting about it now, three months later. I also did a podcast to accompany the piece in which I examine the parallels with the Arab Spring, and the reaction of large companies to social-media criticism, in more detail. I took January off to work on the book, and I’ve now reached the 17th century, John Milton and Areopagitica. Writing about the Facebook of the Tudor court was fun. But I seem to be short of examples of ancient social media from Asia or the Arab world. Tipao? Dazibao? Any suggestions would be most welcome!

Yes, I’m working on another book, this time on the history of the idea of social media, from Roman times to the internet. I’ve been researching this for more than a year already, and there was quite a lot of overlap with my recent special report in The Economist on the future of news, which examined the growing importance of social media in the news ecosystem, and set the current difficulties of the news industry in historical context. I’ve got the outline of the new book sorted out, and gave a preview of some of its content in a recent speech (see below). Now for the hard part: I actually have to write it.

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