Social media’s long history

23 Dec

Writing on the Wall

This brief review explores the book’s central thesis, so I should offer a spoiler alert to those who’ve not read Tom Standage’s ‘Writing on the Wall’ through to the end.

The argument explored in this intriguing and unusual media history is that social media goes back at least 2,000 years but that mass media has been a 150 year aberration in human history. The author writes:

“Social media is not new. It has been around for centuries.  Today, blogs are the new pamphlets. Microblogs and online social networks are the new coffeehouses. Media-sharing sites are the new commonplace books. They are all shared, social platforms that enable ideas to travel from one person to another, rippling through networks of people connected by social bonds rather than having to squeeze through the privileged bottlenecks of broadcast media. The rebirth of social media in the Internet age represents a profound shift – and a return, in many respects, to the way things used to be.”

The author is The Economist’s digital editor, a paid-up representative of the mass media world (The Economist was founded in the 1840s) and the book provides useful background to the debates about press freedom and regulation that have surrounded the Leveson Inquiry.

Historical examples in the book include the sharing of correspondence in Ancient Rome; how printed pamphlets helped spread the ideas of Protestant reformers; how coffeehouses promoted innovation; how self-expression has a longer history than the taking of selfies.

This historical analysis leads to a balanced concluding essay weighing up the arguments between the optimists who view social media as a channel for free expression and the pessimists who point out that governments can use the same tools to promote repression.  To those who condemn social media as a waste of time, Standage says that coffeehouses led to the same complaint (in the 1670s they were denounced as “great enemies to diligence and industry”).

An Oxford antiquarian blamed coffeehouses for the lack of learning among students. “Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none follow it now in the university? Answer: Because of coffee-houses, where they spend all their time.”

The complaint in Cambridge was of students taking an interest in news. “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.”

In his book tour talk, Standage defined social media as ‘media we get from other people, exchanged along social connections, creating a distributed discussion or community’.

For public relations educators and practitioners, the book is helpful as it reminds us what we do: we develop these social connections and encourage conversations and communities. It also enables us to respond to the familiar criticisms of social media, that it’s a fad or a waste of time. Conversely, if all we did was media relations, then the end of the mass media age would mean an end to our usefulness.

Standage provides a detailed, forensic reading of his chosen historical sources but this is emphatically not a book about technology. It’s about the people who have used various communication technologies (from writing and printing through to the Internet) to share ideas. The emphasis on behaviour reminds us that human nature is resistant to change.

For my part, I’m pleased when my students take an interest in news – and I have no plans to discourage their coffee consumption. Whether many of them share my interest in history is another matter.

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