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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

There are other examples too, poems before the French Revolution, pamphlets in the English Civil War, pamphlets before the American Revolution, I have got a whole lot of examples.

The question then is: if social media is commonplace around history, what happened to it? Why haven’t we noticed this before? The answer is that we went from this kind of environment, where people are sharing stuff on social networks, and in the 19th century, we switched to this kind of model. This is where a small number of people are delivering a message very very efficiently to an enormous audience, but in an impersonal way. This starts off with the steam press and with mass circulation newspapers. It then goes on to radio and TV and that sort of thing. They allow a very small selective group of people, let’s call them journalists to reach a large number of people. They are not always journalists, because this is the most notorious example of the effectiveness with which you can propagate a message: propaganda.

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So this is the Nazi Volksempfänger. We heard of the Volkswagen, the people’s car. This is the people’s radio, but it really was the people’s radio because it was built so that it could only pick up domestic German broadcast. You couldn’t pickup foreign news on this. So you basically had to listen to Hitler droning on all the time, and making his speeches. This sort of centralized control is the absolute opposite of social media, and this is what happened in the 19th and then mostly the 20th century. So I think this gives us a new way to look at media, because now, “Social media is back, thanks to the Internet.” The Internet makes it very very cheap to reach a very large audience of people. You don’t need a huge and expensive printing press or radio transmitter anymore. You can just go out there onto your social platform of choice, and potentially, what you write or publish can reach an audience of millions.

So I think this means instead of looking at the history of media like this, as a division between old and new media — “old” was analog, print, broadcast, “new” is digital, the Internet, and more social — I think that’s not the whole story. We really need to think of it like this. There was this thing called “really old” media, and it was quite similar to “new” media. The cutoff is 1833, which is when the first penny paper is launched in New York. That’s for me the beginning of “old” media, the beginning of this centralization.

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