The Writing On the Wall: Social Media—The First 2,000 Years, by Tom Standage

Eight stars

At a time when one is almost ostracised for not being on at least one social media platform, Tom Standage has penned this most interesting of books. Many feel that social media is something that emerged over the last twenty years, gaining momentum with the ever-complex nature of Tweets, Likes, and even the odd Snap. However, if one looks through the annals of history, it is easy to find that social media in various forms has been around since humans sought to communicate in their basest forms. This is the premise of Standage’s book, which is sure to open the eyes of many readers and leave those who are not too addicted to their smartphones to take a look up from their screens. As Standage opens his tome, he explores why humans socialise and what it is about us that makes it essential. While his analysis of brain size and group activities is easy to comprehend, Standage extrapolates the argument and looks at the larger primate population. Social grooming is but one interesting example of how primates have long interacted with one another, though it is quite telling. It is a way to engage and help one another out. One might even say we share a particular ability by doing so.

From there, the book gets into its central arguments, looking as far back as the Romans. Standage explains that social media type interacting can be traced back effectively through the letter sharing done at the time, when writers who responded to missives would sometimes copy out the letter they sought to answer and share it amongst others. This was an early form of social interaction and sharing of sentiments, almost a ‘response to a post’ idea. This gradually continued in various forms, including in early Christianity, where this idea blossomed into creating a widespread religion by spreading ‘The Word’ along, through letters and, some of which were copied and left for others to read on their own. This early communication form helped pave the way to many other exciting means of communication and sharing of key ideas, while also embracing those who felt similarly.

One would be remiss not to look at the Gutenberg printing press as a major form of social communication. This allowed mass copying and distribution of ideas, rather than having to copy them out over and over. Gutenberg’s press went hand in hand with the rise of Martin Luther, who communicated his ideas against the Church effectively, beginning a (necessary?) conversation about the control and edicts that were being depicted at the time. Standage argues quite effectively that Luther was one of the early users of social media to drum up revolutionary fervour when it comes to ideas, though he was surely not the only one. Hand in hand with this is another topic, that being the censorship of ideas, which followed after people began expressing themselves in writing. England had a history in the 17th century of requiring a stamp of approval to publish anything, thereby having it checked before it could be released to the public. While this lack of press freedom may have created a stir, it does allow Standage to delve into the topic of how social interactions are not always factual, leaving some to wonder if this matters, in the larger scheme of things.

The evolution of the coffeehouse added much when it comes to social networking. Standage discusses at some length about how coffee and discussions seemed a natural pairing. In another of his books (and made reference to here), Standage argues that the arrival of coffee to Europe helped foster the academic spirit. Many key tenets of science and literature came out of coffeehouse encounters, including some of Newton’s most lasting scientific sentiments that still hold true today. People will gather over coffee to hash out ideas and come to some semblance of agreement (or even differ greatly), which helps promote the idea that coffee fosters social interactions and thereby is surely part of the larger social media progression.

I look to the news and see how things like #BlackLivesMatter are emerging with more intensity each and every day. Use of social media platforms help propel the movement forward , permitting people to share their sentiments and join the cause. Standage shows repeatedly that this push to revolution is not new, through pamphlets, tracts, and political books that played a role for centuries. To get people involved, things sometimes needed to be written down. To raise the ire of the masses, people needed to see things in front of them. While there were no cellular phones back in the 18th century, there were persuasive writers who could make their points and sway people to their side. Equally, there were those who denounced what was being done and wrote to critique the revolutionary movement. This banter, as well as being healthy, also fed the fires of debate and helped push the world towards new and exciting norms. Without them, Americans may still be sipping tea and searching for the best crumpets on the market. Seriously though, the back and forth of past writing helped shape the countries in which we live today and pushed for change when it was needed. While it may have been slower than many hoped, there was progress made… though some may wonder if we have regressed with the current criticisms being bandied about on current social media platforms!

The latter portion of the book handles the explosion of mass media and how this helped create a social collective or isolationist mentality. The birth of communication through broadly distributed newspapers, international correspondence by telegraph, and instant communication by radio (and eventually television) helped to develop new platforms for social interaction, or at least a connectivity that cannot be ignored. Standage takes things one step further with a thoroughly interesting chapter on the emergence of ‘online social media’ with the start of computer to computer conversations. This led to webpages, the internet, and soon the start of the international sandbox of communication. While the ‘info at a click’ movement has surely become the norm, Standage argues that it has helped the world see things in real time and pushed social movements into instant reactions, rather than needing to stir up the people with a fiery speech on the printed page.

While this is the fourth book of Tom Standage’s that I have read in just over a week (obsessed, perhaps?), I have taken away just as much with this piece as I did when he tackled issues in the other three. Building on some of the arguments made previously by scanning world history, Standage shows how humans can connect on many levels at different times in history. He effectively posits that human are social beings and that we are able to come together to share, even if we do not always agree. It is this ability to communicate that has helped create advancements and kept the history books interesting. Controversy has woven itself into the lives of all those who made a mark on the world, down to the lowliest 3am Tweet. While many people feel that social media is surely a new thing that they will never fully comprehend, Tom Standage steps in to remind us that it is only a new permutation of a long-understood concept. However and whenever you choose to put yourself out there to the world, you are making a difference. All this and so much more is found within the pages of this easy to digest tome, which offers as much information as you’d find in an academic textbook. Standage compresses things into a mere eleven chapters and makes great references to well-known historical events, as well as more modern happenings that shaped the world. A must-read for those who want to take a step back and learn a little something as they try to synthesise where things have come in the past decade or so. It’s not about making the world great again… it’s about rediscovering how great it has always been!

Kudos, Mr. Standage, for another amazing reading experience. I learn so much and find myself having fun as I do it, which is the best education of all!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons