SOCIAL STORIES: social media isn’t a historic blip… mass media is

2931756818_112d351b0c_o (1)It’s not often I’ll re-post someone else’s content. It’s even rarer that I re-post someone re-posting someone else’s content. But this one is something of a belter and it’s entirely within the spirit to do so.

There was an excellent TED talk YouTube on Stephen Waddington’s blog from Tom Standage who is both digital editor at The Economist and an author. The book he’s written is ‘Writing on the Wall’ which shows how far from being a modern blip is actually 2,000 years old. Not only is it rooted in history it’s the last 150-years of print mass media that’s actually the faddish blip.

As a historian that really appeals to me. It appeals even more to the geek in me. And it appeals yet more from someone who helps with the brewcamp meet-ups that actually idea sharing in a coffee shop has been around before. As Standage says, coffee shops in 18th century London were known as ‘Penny Universities’ where people could share listen, talk and meet with social superiors for the price of a brew.

Tom Standage’s three phases of media

New media 1993 – to date

That’s the stuff that’s been around since about 2000. It’s Twitter and it’s Facebook and it’s this blog post.

Old media 1833 – 1993

That’s the stuff that’s powered by a steam powered printing press. It starts with the first penny newspaper and ends with the invention of the internet.

Really old media 51 BC – 1833

That’s the stuff that first emerged in the late Roman period where people like Terentius Neo and his wife write letters to each other. Letters would be shared. Books were scarce. So you wrote one copy and place it in a library. If it was any good it it would be copied and shared. Or in other words, pirated. If it was pirated often enough then publishers would step in and produce more. So you really wanted your wortk to be pirated by as many people as possible because it meant your ideas got spread.

“You say my letter has been widely copied. Well, I don’t care.  Indeed, I myself allowed several people to take a copy of it.” – Cicero Rome, 106 BC – 43 BC.

News would get around on wax tablets with the same aspect as the i-pad, Standage says.

Martin Luther’s ideas go viral

Priest Martin Luther sparked a revolution when he started to question with the Roman Catholic church was selling pardons from purgatory. He writes out a list of questions he’d like answering. He pins it to a church door in Latin. It gets copied down in long hand and shared. It gets copied and further shared. It gets printed. It gets printed in German and shared even  more widely. Luther is amazed. He never intended the challenge to go viral. So, the next time he gets his message out by going straight to the printer with a German text. The result? The Reformation as the Catholic church splits and Protestantism is formed.

Coffee Houses and social media

There were no barriers to class in a coffee house and in London they led to an explosion of ideas and debate. Lloyd’s of London the insurance brokers began in a coffee house as did The Stock Exchange. So did the Royal Society.

“(The coffee house) admits of no distinction of persons, but gentlemen, mechanic, lord and scoundrel mix and are all of a piece.” – Samuel Butler, London, 1668.

Deliciously, Standage points to the parallels with social media and coffee houses and points to how people thought that people in coffee houses were just messing about.

“Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none now follow it now in the University? Because of coffee houses. Where they spend all their time.” – Anthony Wood, Oxford, 1670s.

What the history lesson is for today

“Is social media a fad? If anything was a fad it was the old media mass media period that was a historical anomaly. Now we’ve gone to a more social model super-charged by the internet.” – Tom Standage, Oxford, 2013.

All of that rather appeals. It means that the brewcamps, teacamps and for that matter unconferences we think of as new ideas are actually rooted deeply in something that has gone before. It’s also something that has a track record of innovation. You put people into a room with a cup of coffee – and maybe some cake – and you start to get some good results. That’s tremendously re-assuring and tremendously exciting.

A few years ago when all this digital stuff was new to me I sat in the pub with Michael Grimes who is @citizensheep on Twitter. We were complaining that people were thinking that social media was just people wasting their time. And that people had once complained about telephones. And railways in the Victorian era. And every other invention.

Tom Standage’s book is called ‘The Writing on the Wall: Social Media the First 2,000 Years’ and you can buy it from shops and the internet very soon. You can watch the TED talk here…

Creative commons credit 

Coffee and laptop http://www.flickr.com/photos/librarianbyday/2931756818/sizes/o/


3 Comments on “SOCIAL STORIES: social media isn’t a historic blip… mass media is”

  1. johnpopham says:

    You echo a lot of my thinking exactly, Dan. I believe, fundamentally we are all social beings, and the period of “old media” put the power to communicate in the hands of too few people. Now we are fighting back against that concentration of power.

  2. […] SOCIAL STORIES: social media isn’t a historic blip… mass media is […]


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