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

If we go back to that previous one, the woman here, she’s got a Roman Galaxy S4. So there is buttons also in the middle of the long end, which is quite interesting. So this is the way that the news got around. If you were going out of town, and you wanted to be kept informed of the news, then your friends would copy out the bits of the Acta Diurna, and other bits of the letters they had received. You got the news from your friends. It was a social media system.

Let’s move forward a bit. Here is another example. This is from 1500 years later, this is Martin Luther. Martin Luther picks a fight with the Catholic Church over the doctrine of indulgences, this is the sale of ‘get out of purgatory’ free cards basically. And he thinks this is a silly idea, so he writes 95 theses, essentially questions he wants to debate, questions he wants the Pope to answer. These days it would be a listicle on BuzzFeed. It would be called : “95 reasons why the Pope has got it wrong on indulgences”, or something like that. If it was on BuzzFeed, it would be called : “95 crazy reasons why the Pope is wrong…”

What he actually does, though, is he writes this out, longhand, and he pins it to the Church door in Wittenberg, to say: “I want to have a debate on this.” Because that’s how you announced the debate. People start copying it down. It starts to spread. And then printers get hold of it. It’s in Latin. They print copies of it, it spreads to printers in nearby towns. It’s causing such a stir, they reprint it. It spreads to other towns. It spreads. Luther doesn’t do anything himself. Some of the printers cleverly translate it into German, which means it can reach more people because not everyone reads Latin. It spreads incredibly fast. This is a contemporary of Luther, he says: “It takes 2 weeks to spread throughout Germany, and a month to spread throughout the whole of Europe.” And this comes as a complete surprise to Luther. He says he can’t believe “they are printed and circulated” – his theses – “far beyond my expectation.” Now a light bulb comes on and he goes: “Hang on a minute. If I want to spread my views about indulgences, this is how I do it.”

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So he writes his next pamphlet in German, he gives it to the printer in Wittenberg, where he lives. He prints a thousand copies. They get carried to nearby towns where more printers print more copies, and it spreads and spreads. This is how he gets his message out.

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And how do we know that this was effective? How can we measure this? Today, we measure the effectiveness of a social media campaign by counting retweets, likes, reblogs and things like that. It turns out you can do this for Martin Luther as well, because you can count the number of times that his pamphlets are reprinted — the number of new editions. If you do that and you look at Martin Luther’s traffic stats, it looks like this. If any of you have a WordPress blog, you will be used to looking at things like this. Martin Luther would be pretty pleased to see it. Look at this, you see, that massive spike in 1523. The red ones here are the German pamphlets, the blue ones are the Latin pamphlets. The lighter colour is the reprints, the darker color is the original new pamphlets by Luther. So you can see massive spikes in reprinting. Each one is another thousand copies.

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So this causes his message to spread throughout the German lands and beyond, and the result is the split in the Church between Catholics and Protestants. The Reformation comes out of this.

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Here’s another social media platform. This one is connected to Oxford. This is the first coffee house in England, here in Oxford. Coffee houses were a fantastic media sharing platform. They were where pamphlets would come in, and news books, which were an ancestor of the newspaper. People would gather, read them and discuss them, and then they’d send them by post to other coffee houses. They would take place in a massive distributed discussion that was going on by people inside coffee houses. And what was particularly notable about coffee houses wasn’t just that they had coffee, it was also that people of different social classes were expected, were invited to mix. So you get the gentleman, the mechanic, the lord and the scoundrel, all talking to each other. Ideas were able to cross over between different groups and different social circles, in a way that they couldn’t before.

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This went on to have some pretty far-reaching impacts. But the main thing this does, is allowing people to be exposed to new ideas, and to take part in a broader discussion of things that are going on. People call coffee houses penny universities. Because you just paid a penny for your coffee, and you could take part in an incredibly alluring and addictive media sharing environment.

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There are many more examples. I have been collecting these for a while. This is a commonplace book, where you wrote interesting stuff, like on Tumblr or Pinterest : “Oh, that’s interesting !” It’s very rarely stuff by you. This is why I say it’s like Tumblr or Pinterest. 80% of stuff on Tumblr and Pinterest is re-shared. It’s the same here with these commonplace books. It’s mostly other people’s poems, lists and aphorisms. You share the book with you friends and they copy out the bit they are interested in. What you choose to share with them, and what you choose to put in your book is a way for you to define and express yourself.

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By Pangambam S

I have been a Transcriber and Editor in the transcription industry for the past 15 years. Now I transcribe and edit at SingjuPost.com. If you have any questions or suggestions, please do let me know. And please do share this post if you liked it and help you in any way.