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

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

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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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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