Tom Standage: Lessons from Ancient Social Media at TEDxOxbridge (Transcript)

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Full transcript of journalist and author Tom Standage’s TEDx Talk: Lessons from Ancient Social Media at TEDxOxbridge Conference.

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Book(s) by the speaker:

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

An Edible History of Humanity

A History of the World in Six Glasses

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers


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Tom Standage – Journalist and author

I’m going to talk to you about social media. And you may say, “Oh, no. Not someone else waffling on about social media!” But I am going to give you a different way of looking at social media, one that I am pretty confident you won’t have heard of before. I want to give you a historical perspective on social media.

But in order to do that, we have to decide first what social media actually is. So this is my definition of it, here. It’s media we get, crucially, from other people. And then it’s exchanged along social connections, and it creates a distributed discussion or community, beyond the room and beyond the people you’re physically with.

So it’s very different from getting, say, an impersonal voice out of a radio. So this is my definition. If you define it this way, then actually it becomes apparent. This is how it works, here. We’ve got a group of people over here. They all tweet each together. And then one of them, in the middle, is connected to this group over here. And so it ripples across. We understand how this works today on Internet based social networks, on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and all the rest of it.

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But actually, this kind of model, this horizontal person-to-person transmission doesn’t require a digital network to happen. And what I spent the past few years doing is looking at examples that occur in history. Because I think social media environments have actually existed for centuries.

So, what do you mean? What are the conditions you need for a social media environment? Well, I think you need a bunch of things. You need literacy, because if you’re going to send messages to people far away, you need to be able to write, and they need to be able to read. And then you also need the cost of sharing, copying and delivering that information to be relatively low. Today, it’s almost free because we have our smartphones and we have broadband.

But it turns out that these conditions have arisen in history before. And as far as I can tell, the first time it occurred was in the late Roman Republic. So this is Terentius Neo and his wife. He was a baker in Pompei. And they are holding signs of their literacy. He is holding a scroll, and she is holding a wax tablet. This was a sort of notebook, if you were a Roman. And they’re basically saying: “Look at us, we’re literate.” So they are very proud of their literacy. Romans, you know, it was a relatively literate society. Romans wrote to each other quite a lot.

And as far as I can see, the first time you get a social media ecosystem is within the Roman elite. And they’re all writing letters to each other. And they’re passing on news. And the Roman elite was basically a bunch of intermarried families. So the political news was the same as the social news. So and so has fallen out with so and so, so and so is divorcing so and so, etc. So if we look at the letters of the statesman and orator Cicero for example, we see this very clearly. Here is an excerpt from one of his letters: “I sent you on March 24th a copy of Balbus’ letter to me… … and of Caesar’s letter to him.” So we can see letters being passed on second and third hand. This seems to have been quite widespread. Letters were essentially semi-public documents.

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Here’s another one. Cicero in this case has written a letter stating his views on something. It’s an open letter, so he is sending it to the recipient, he’s also given copies to his friends. He’s been asked for it by people, they’ve said: “I hear you wrote a really good letter, so and so… ” He’s keeping all of his outgoing mail. In fact, we have Cicero’s outbox and his inbox. So we can actually see what he did. And so this is what he’s doing here. He’s saying: “Yes, I hear that my letter has been widely published.” Which is actually what he wanted.

This is also how books were published in the Roman world. There were no printing presses. So the way you wrote a book was this, you’d write it. There would be lots of scrolls. You would give it to the richest, most influential person that you knew, someone who had a lot of traffic going through their library. And then scholars would go to the library, they’d read it and say: “This book is good. Can I have a copy of it, please?” And then this wealthy patron would have his scribes make them a copy, and then they would take it to their library. It would ripple. And it was only when books were rippling, and people were talking about them and asking for copies, that the bookmakers would actually start to produce them.

So if you were a Roman author, you really wanted your book to be as widely pirated as possible. This was a peer-to-peer system. The other thing that was distributed in a peer-to-peer manner, was the Roman newspaper. It was called the Acta Diurna, was founded in 59 B.C. by Julius Caesar. And it was published every day. Do you know how many copies of it were produced everyday? One. Exactly. One copy. It was put in the forum. And if you wanted to read it, you had to go and read it yourself. And if you wanted to read it somewhere other than the forum, well it was up to the audience to do the distribution. So you would send your scribe down. You would say: “Go down for me, note down the headlines you think I might be interested in. Because I want to read the news over breakfast.” And you scribe would do that. And then he would bring you back the news. And this is the device that you would read it on. Looks quite familiar. And this is a Roman iPad. It’s actually a wax tablet, but you will notice the aspect ratio is exactly the same. The size is identical.

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