Writing on the Wall: Social Media - The First 2,000 Years

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Papyrus rolls and Twitter have much in common, as each was their generation's signature means of “instant” communication. Indeed, as Tom Standage reveals in his scintillating new book, social media is anything but a new phenomenon.

From the papyrus letters that Roman statesmen used to exchange news across the Empire to the advent of hand-printed tracts of the Reformation to the pamphlets that spread propaganda during the American and French revolutions, Standage chronicles the increasingly sophisticated ways people shared information with each other, spontaneously and organically, down the centuries. With the rise of newspapers in the nineteenth century, then radio and television, “mass media” consolidated control of information in the hands of a few moguls. However, the Internet has brought information sharing full circle, and the spreading of news along social networks has reemerged in powerful new ways.

A fresh, provocative exploration of social media over two millennia, Writing on the Wall reminds us how modern behavior echoes that of prior centuries-the Catholic Church, for example, faced similar dilemmas in deciding whether or how to respond to Martin Luther's attacks in the early sixteenth century to those that large institutions confront today in responding to public criticism on the Internet. Invoking the likes of Thomas Paine and Vinton Cerf, co-inventor of the Internet, Standage explores themes that have long been debated: the tension between freedom of expression and censorship; whether social media trivializes, coarsens or enhances public discourse; and its role in spurring innovation, enabling self-promotion, and fomenting revolution. As engaging as it is visionary, Writing on the Wall draws on history to cast new light on today's social media and encourages debate and discussion about how we'll communicate in the future.

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About the Author:

Tom Standage is digital editor at the Economist, overseeing the magazine's website, smartphone, tablet, and e-reader editions. He is also editor of the Technology Quarterly supplement, which covers emerging technology. Standage is the author of five books, including the New York Times bestseller A History of the World in 6 Glasses, An Edible History of Humanity, and The Victorian Internet, described by the Wall Street Journal as a “dot-com cult classic.” Standage is a regular commentator on BBC radio and has written for many other publications, including the New York Times and Wired. He lives in London with his wife and children. Visit his website at www.tomstandage.com.

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*Starred Review* Whatever adolescents and technophiles might think, social media is nothing new. Standage (A History of the World in 6 Glasses, 2005) explores the human impulse to socialize and the earlier technologies, from papyrus to printing press, that accommodated that impulse. Messengers and travelers shuttled papyrus rolls throughout the Roman Empire. An early Roman newspaper, founded by Julius Caesar, no less, was posted, and readers were expected to copy it and distribute the news themselves through their social networks. The wax tablet bore strong resemblance to the iPad. Pamphlets and news ballads went viral, spread throughout Europe by travelers, and the Devonshire Manuscript was the Tudor-era Facebook. Standage compares the back-and-forth of ancient graffiti comments to comment threads in blogs and puts Paul’s epistles in the context of social media as he and other apostles spread Christianity. Rumors, gossip, love poems, and political and religious unrest were all part of the stew of discussion as technology morphed into mass communication and the Internet age. Standage offers historical perspective on such concerns about evolving social media as faddishness, coarsening of discourse, distraction from serious work, and erosion of social skills. Still, the social media evolution marched on, influencing politics and religion and aiding revolution in Europe and the Americas. A thoroughly fascinating look at the evolution of social media. --Vanessa Bush

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