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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

So I think that tells us that social media doesn’t actually cause revolution, as an underlying grievance, obviously, but what they do is they allow them to spread more quickly. One way this has been put by Jared Cohen at Google, is that they’re an accelerator. They don’t start a fire, but they help it to spread more quickly. I think that’s a very good way to think about it.

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Finally, “Is social media a fad?” I hope I’ve convinced you that it has been around for a very long time. It’s not at all a fad. If anything was a fad, it was the “old” mass-media period. That was a historical anomaly, if you look at it in these terms. Now we have gone back to a more social model like we had before at the middle of the 19th century. But this time it’s supercharged by the Internet.

So social media is not a fad. It was the mass-media era that was an anomaly. Social media is here to stay. In fact, I hope I have convinced you that modern social-media users – all of you, I hope you’re all on Twitter – are heirs to a centuries-long tradition. I hope this will change the way you look at social media, that you’ll realize that all of these different modern activities have these historical predecessors. And so I hope I have convinced you that social media doesn’t just connect us to each other today, it also links us to the past.

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