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

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.

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.

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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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So I think this means that this pre-“old” media period can tell us a lot today. I think this means ancient social media systems have lessons for us, so there is a whole bunch of lessons for us. Let me just do three of them very quickly.

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Here is the first one: “Is social media merely a dangerous distraction, a waste of time ?” I’m sure you’ve been told this, it’s a very common complaint, basically that “We shouldn’t be calling it social networking, we should be calling it social notworking.” This is actually a very old complaint. Here is somebody making exactly this complaint in Oxford in the 1670s. Anthony Wood says: “Why are the students not doing any work anymore? Because they’re all in the coffee house, sharing media with their friends.” It turns out this also happened in Cambridge. Equal opportunities, right? Oxbridge! Exactly the same complaints in Cambridge: students don’t work anymore because they’re in the coffee house.

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Here is a pamphlet that is complaining the same thing: coffee houses are enemies to diligence and industry, and the ruin of serious young men because people are just wasting time. Is this true, though? Well, look at what happened at the end of the 17th century. You’ll see that instead of being enemies of diligence and industry, coffee houses were crucibles of innovation. They allowed people and ideas to mingle in new ways. Incredible things came out of that. The scientific revolution, for example. You get scientists meeting in coffee houses. The Royal Society grows out of people meeting in coffee houses, here in Oxford and in London. They sometimes even do experiments and lectures in coffee houses. My favorite example is that Isaac Newton writes Principia Mathematica, the foundation of modern science, in order to settle a coffee house argument between Wren, Hooke and Halley. Blame the coffee house.

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Similarly, you get commercial innovation from coffee houses. So Lloyd’s of London starts off as a coffee house called Lloyd’s. Another coffee house round the corner called Jonathan’s turns into the London Stock Exchange. You get amazing innovation because of this collision of ideas. The same is possible in social media today. Some companies are realizing this, and they are using social media internally in order to foster collaboration and innovation.

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Let’s move on. “What is the role of social media in revolutions?” We heard a lot about this, particularly after the Arab Spring. To what extent did Facebook and Twitter play a role, in what happened in Tunisia and Egypt? Can we call them Twitter revolutions? Well it turns out we can find out by asking history. We can ask Martin Luther. He said “From the rapid spread of the theses, I gathered what the greater part of the nation thought about indulgences.” In other words, the popularity of his pamphlets was a signalling mechanism, both to him and to the readers of the pamphlets, that they all felt the same way about indulgences.

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So this was what modern media scholars call synchronization of opinion. And it means that people who aren’t quite sure they share the same views as other people, can find out that they do. Today, you can do it because 80,000 people like a Facebook page, that says : “Let’s go and have a demonstration on Saturday.” But in those days, you could do it because when you went to the pamphlet seller, he’d say: “Sorry, I’ve sold out of the new Martin Luther.” And then you’d know that other people were trying to buy it and therefore they were interested in what he had to say.

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By Pangambam S

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