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

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

Full speaker bio:


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
YouTube Video:

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.

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.

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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.

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