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

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

Tom Standage at TEDxOxbridge

Full transcript of journalist and author Tom Standage’s TEDx Talk: Lessons from Ancient Social Media at TEDxOxbridge Conference.

Tom Standage – Journalist and author

I’m going to talk to you about social media. And you may say, “Oh, no. Not someone else waffling on about social media!” But I am going to give you a different way of looking at social media, one that I am pretty confident you won’t have heard of before. I want to give you a historical perspective on social media.

But in order to do that, we have to decide first what social media actually is. So this is my definition of it, here. It’s media we get, crucially, from other people. And then it’s exchanged along social connections, and it creates a distributed discussion or community, beyond the room and beyond the people you’re physically with.

So it’s very different from getting, say, an impersonal voice out of a radio. So this is my definition. If you define it this way, then actually it becomes apparent. This is how it works, here. We’ve got a group of people over here. They all tweet each together. And then one of them, in the middle, is connected to this group over here. And so it ripples across. We understand how this works today on Internet based social networks, on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and all the rest of it.

But actually, this kind of model, this horizontal person-to-person transmission doesn’t require a digital network to happen. And what I spent the past few years doing is looking at examples that occur in history. Because I think social media environments have actually existed for centuries.

So, what do you mean? What are the conditions you need for a social media environment? Well, I think you need a bunch of things. You need literacy, because if you’re going to send messages to people far away, you need to be able to write, and they need to be able to read. And then you also need the cost of sharing, copying and delivering that information to be relatively low. Today, it’s almost free because we have our smartphones and we have broadband.

But it turns out that these conditions have arisen in history before. And as far as I can tell, the first time it occurred was in the late Roman Republic. So this is Terentius Neo and his wife. He was a baker in Pompei. And they are holding signs of their literacy. He is holding a scroll, and she is holding a wax tablet. This was a sort of notebook, if you were a Roman. And they’re basically saying: “Look at us, we’re literate.” So they are very proud of their literacy. Romans, you know, it was a relatively literate society. Romans wrote to each other quite a lot.

And as far as I can see, the first time you get a social media ecosystem is within the Roman elite. And they’re all writing letters to each other. And they’re passing on news. And the Roman elite was basically a bunch of intermarried families. So the political news was the same as the social news. So and so has fallen out with so and so, so and so is divorcing so and so, etc. So if we look at the letters of the statesman and orator Cicero for example, we see this very clearly. Here is an excerpt from one of his letters: “I sent you on March 24th a copy of Balbus’ letter to me… … and of Caesar’s letter to him.” So we can see letters being passed on second and third hand. This seems to have been quite widespread. Letters were essentially semi-public documents.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Thank you.


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