Lessons from ancient social media | Tom Standage | TEDxOxbridge
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Lessons from ancient social media | Tom Standage | TEDxOxbridge


Translator: Marine Gallois
Reviewer: Els De Keyser (Applause) I’m going to talk to you
about social media. And you may say: “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 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 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 it becomes apparent. This is how it works, here. We’ve got a group of people over here.
They all tweet each together. One, 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. I spent the past few years
looking at examples that occur in history. Because I think social media environments
have actually existed for centuries. So, what are the conditions you need
for a social media environment ? You need a bunch of things. You need literacy, because to send
messages to people far away, you need to be able to write,
and they need to be able to read. 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 broadband. But it turns out that these conditions
have arisen in history before. And as far as I can tell, the first time
was in the late Roman Republic. So this is Terentius Neo and his wife. He was a baker in Pompei. 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. They’re basically saying :
“Look at us, we’re literate.” They are very proud of their literacy. Romans, you know,
it was a relatively literate society. Romans wrote to each other quite a lot. As far as I know, the first
social media ecosystem is within the Roman elite. They all write letters to each other.
They pass on news. The Roman elite were 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 sends it to the recipient and also gives copies to his friends.
He’s been asked for it : “I hear you wrote
a good letter, so and so… ” (Laughs) He’s keeping all of his outgoing mail.
We have Cicero’s outbox and his inbox. So we can see what he did. This is what he’s doing here.
He’s saying : “I hear my letter
has been widely published.” Which is what he wanted. This is also how books were published
in the Roman world. There were no printing presses. To write a book, you’d write it.
There would be lots of scrolls. You would give it to the richest,
most influential person you knew, who had a lot of traffic
going through their library. Then scholars would
go to the library, read it and say: “This book is good.
Can I have a copy ?” Then this wealthy patron would have
his scribes make them a copy, and take it to their library.
It would ripple. Only when books were rippling,
and people were talking about them and asking for copies, would the bookmakers
start to produce them. Roman authors wanted their book
to be as widely pirated as possible. This was a peer-to-peer system. The other thing distributed in a peer-to-peer
manner, was the Roman newspaper. It was called the Acta Diurna,
founded in 59 B.C. by Julius Caesar. It was published every day. Do you know
how many copies were produced ? Spectator : One.
Tom Standage : One. Exactly. One copy. (Laughs) It was in the forum.
If you wanted to read it, you had to go and read it yourself. If you wanted to read it
somewhere other, 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
I might be interested in. Because I want to read the news
over breakfast.” Your scribe would do that.
He would bring you back the news. This is the device you would read
it on. Looks quite familiar. This is a Roman iPad.
(Laughs) It’s actually a wax tablet,
but the aspect ratio is exactly the same. The size is identical.
(Laughs) If we go back to that previous one,
the woman, she’s got a Roman Galaxy S4.
(Laughs) The buttons were in the middle
of the long end, which is quite interesting. So this is the way the news got around.
If you were going out of town, and you wanted to be kept
informed of the news, your friends would copy
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, or the sale of ‘get out of purgatory’ free cards. 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
is wrong on indulgences”, or something like that.
(Laughs) 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 pins it to the Church door
in Wittenberg, to say : “I want to have a debate on this.”
That was how you did that. People start copying it.
It starts to spread. 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
translate it into German, so it reaches people
who don’t read Latin. It spreads incredibly fast.
This is a contemporary of Luther: “It takes 2 weeks to spread
throughout Germany, and a month to spread
throughout the whole of Europe.” This comes as a total 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… … this is the way to spread my views
about indulgences.” So he writes his next pamphlet in German, 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. 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 etc. 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. (Laughs) If any of you have a WordPress blog,
you will be used to looking at things like this. Luther would be pretty pleased
to see it. You see, that massive spike is 1523. The red ones here are the German pamphlets,
the blue ones are the Latin pamphlets. The lighter colour is the reprints, the darker colour is the original
new pamphlets by Luther. You can see massive spikes in reprinting.
Each one is another thousand copies. 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 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. What was 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 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. You 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 !” (Laughs) 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
and friends copy the bit they like. 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. Other examples :
poems before the French Revolution, pamphlets in the English Civil War,
pamphlets before the American Revolution… I have 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 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 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. This is the Nazi Volksempfänger. We know the Volkswagen,
the people’s car. This is the people’s radio,
but it 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 it.
So you had to listen to Hitler droning on all the time,
and making his speeches. This sort of centralised control is the absolute opposite of social media, and this is what happened in the 19th
and then mostly the 20th century. 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 cheap
to reach a large audience of people. You don’t need an 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. 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 need to think of it like this.
(Laughs) 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,
of this centralisation. I think that this pre-“old” media period
can tell us a lot today. This means ancient social media systems have 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, that “We shouldn’t be calling it
social networking… … we should be calling it
social notworking.” (Laughs) This is 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.” (Laughs) It turns out this also happened
in Cambridge. (Laughs) 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 favourite 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.
(Laughs) Blame the coffee house. Similarly, coffee houses lead to
commercial innovation. 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.
(Laughs) You get amazing innovation
from this collision of ideas. The same is possible
in social media today. Some companies are realising this,
and are using social media internally to foster collaboration and innovation. “What is the role of social media
in revolutions?” We heard a lot about this,
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 ? It turns out we can find out
by asking history. We can ask Martin Luther : “From the rapid spread of the theses, I gathered what most of the nation
thought of indulgences.” That is, the popularity of his pamphlets
was a signalling mechanism, to him and to the readers
of the pamphlets, that they all felt the same way
about indulgences. Modern media scholars
call this synchronisation of opinion. 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
when 80,000 people like a Facebook page, that says : “Let’s go and have
a demonstration on Saturday.” In those days, you could do it because
when you went to the pamphlet seller, he’d say : “Sorry,
sold out of the new Luther.” Then you’d know other people
were trying to buy it and were interested
in what he had to say. I think that tells us that social media
doesn’t cause revolution, as an underlying grievance, obviously, but they help them
and 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. I think that’s a 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. This time it’s supercharged
by the Internet. “Social media is not a fad. It was the mass-media era
that was a anomaly.” Social media is here to stay. 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 realise all these modern activities
have these historical predecessors. 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. (Applause)

6 thoughts on “Lessons from ancient social media | Tom Standage | TEDxOxbridge

  1. Tom Standage, thanks for this, glad to see The Economist and its Bosses continuing to conspire for a better world. Worth sharing, BDFMA (but don't follow my advice).

    My favorite example of the coffee house as social media hub is Einstein and his buddies in Bern kicking around the problem of light. If he had been a better corporate tool then he'd have been teaching like he wanted.

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