Thursday, January 2, 2014

Social Media's 2,000 Year History: "Writing on the Wall"

After listening to an interview with Tom Standage on a podcast of To the Best of Our Knowledge, I quickly picked up his book, Writing on the Wall.

Standage makes the important but often overlooked point that social media is nothing new: "Our brains were literally made for social networking," he writes.

Thousands of years ago, storytelling and oral tradition allowed information to pass from person to person and generation to generation. More recently, written language brought the rise of letters (on stone, in wax, on papyrus, as graffiti) and "news letters," voluminous letters summarizing local news and gossip for readers far and wide.

Then came the game-changing development of the printing press, which Standage notes became the catalyst for viral sharing of controversial or inspiring messages among even larger audiences. Martin Luther's list of 95 theses, tacked to the church door, was copied and printed and copied and printed throughout the town, the country, and beyond. Within four weeks, Luther's theses were being read all over Europe--a viral message with unexpectedly dramatic consequences.

Another great example of non-electronic social networking is Tom Paine's Common Sense, which went viral through repeated reprinting within the 13 colonies and fired up the colonists and the troops for the American Revolution.

Over the years, mass media like newspapers, radio, and television have also played influential roles as social media. Once ARPANET was created, however, electronic networks became the focal point of social media as we know it.

My only gripe about the book is the tiny font. Otherwise, Writing on the Wall is a fascinating read and provides insightful perspective on the ever-evolving continuum of social media.

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