To Tom Standage, “social media” is nothing new. Twitter and Facebook, he argues in his latest book, Writing on the Wall: Social Media - The First 2,000 Years, are simply the newest twists on an old form. People have always shared gossip and information in highly personal ways, from the Romans who scrawled quips to one another on the walls of Pompeii; to the courtiers of Tudor England, whose intrigues filled the pages of manuscript books passed hand-to-hand; to the coffeehouse intellectuals throughout Europe, who gathered together at tables piled high with the day’s news. Far from being a novelty, Standage points out, social media has always been with us.
The central premise of the book is that from Cicero to Thomas Paine to Mark Zuckerberg, people have always communicated in very personal ways. Yet we often hear people talking about “social media” as an entirely new phenomenon. Why is it so easy for people to forget this history?
"The mass-media era that is now coming to an end was a historical anomaly."
I think it’s because people alive today have grown up in the era of mass media, so we tend to assume that this is how media technology has always worked: in a centralized, vertical, one-way, broadcast manner. But it hasn’t. The way newspapers, radio, and TV worked during the 20th century turns out to have been a consequence of the short-term high cost of equipment that could reach large audiences efficiently: steam presses, radio transmitters, and so on. If you look back before the era of this “old media,” as I do in my book, you see information traveling in a decentralized, horizontal, two-way, conversational manner, as people passed information along social connections. It is, in other words, social media, and the mass-media era that is now coming to an end was a historical anomaly. So you can see why we’ve forgotten about this previous era of ancient social media, and that’s why I’m so keen to remind everyone about it, and to take this much longer view of the history of media.
One big difference seems to be that today’s “social media” is used synonymously with Facebook, Twitter, and Google. While providing a medium for information distribution, they’re also large corporations that have to (eventually) make a profit. How does that change our understanding of their place in social-media history?
Well, coffee houses were also profit-making businesses, and so were local printers, and the postal service. So there have been commercial enterprises involved in social-media systems in the past. What’s striking about today’s social-media environment is that we have these platforms that allow decentralized sharing of information, but there are a few really big ones, which means there’s a high degree of concentration of control and ownership. When Romans exchanged papyrus rolls, or pamphlets passed between coffee houses, there wasn’t this level of concentration. But I wonder whether this state of affairs is here to stay. If you look at the 1990s, it seemed that CompuServe and AOL had an unbreakable grip on consumer internet access. It turned out that they didn’t, and those proprietary walled gardens gave way to the open web. Both email and web publishing operate on open, distributed standards that allow you to set up and plug in your own servers if you want to, so it seems anomalous that social media and social networking don’t work that way too. So far attempts to build open, distributed social platforms haven’t got very far, but I think they’re worth watching.
You note that whatever the environment, humans seem “wired” for sharing. What does that tell us about the changing faces of social media?
"Technologies come and go, but they still press the same buttons in our stone-age brains."
What it says to me is that technologies come and go, but they still press the same buttons in our Stone-Age brains. Modern social media is so compelling because it’s the most convenient and efficient means we have invented so far to scratch a prehistoric itch: the desire to share and network with other people. Previous incarnations of social media were popular for the same reason. They just didn’t work as quickly.
Even if sharing’s innately human, authorities have consistently tried to regulate social media — with varying degrees of success. Yet today many of us would assume that not only should social media not be regulated, but that it can’t be regulated. How did that shift in thinking come about?
The difficulty of trying to regulate printing presses became apparent in the 16th century, when we see all kinds of familiar-looking ruses being exploited by printers: giving false names and addresses on title pages, for example. It was clear that watertight regulation of the press was impossible; it couldn’t be done. The idea that it shouldn’t be done arises in the 1640s in England, when the press controls that did exist broke down altogether during the English Civil War. That’s when John Milton and others made the case for freedom of the press, and freedom of expression more generally, on the basis that no system of pre-licensing or censorship would ever be fair or unbiased, so it was better to just let people print whatever they want and let their views slug it out on the battlefield of ideas. “Let truth and falsehood grapple,” as Milton put it in Areopagitica. His words seem strikingly modern today, and his arguments feel very familiar, because they are the foundations on which our conception of freedom of expression is built.
You’ve written a book examining the first 2,000 years of social media. Care to speculate on where it goes in the next few years (or few months)?
Going back to the question of centralization, I think the big question is whether these efforts to build open, distributed social platforms go anywhere. At one end of the spectrum is the scenario that the existing platforms get bigger and more powerful, and eventually run into antitrust problems. At the other end is the possibility that one of these open networks starts to gain traction, initially among geeks, and then goes mainstream following a big security or privacy breach at one of the established platforms.
"I think the big question is whether these efforts to build open, distributed social platforms go anywhere."
The most likely outcome is in the middle, which is that new social platforms continue to rise and fall, and that competition between platforms keeps them reasonably honest. Most people already use multiple social platforms, so I suspect the future is one of more diversity rather than less. But the fundamental desire to share stuff with your friends, and to use that sharing as a means of determining and maintaining your position within your social networks will be unchanged, as it has been since Roman times.