Tom Standage, “Social Media: A Historical Perspective” | Authors at Google
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Tom Standage, “Social Media: A Historical Perspective” | Authors at Google


TOM STANDAGE: That is
just such a good line. I’m totally stealing that. Now that the internet is just
way to make you go faster That’s brilliant. Thank you. You’ll be hearing that on NPR. So thanks very much
for having me here. Thank you, Stephan, for
making it all happen. Yes, I’ve written this book
about social media and the idea that it’s a very
old thing and not as we are encouraged
to think of it– new and shiny and completely
historically unprecedented. I don’t think it is. I think, actually, it has
been around for a long time. And that means it could
be– we can look at history and we can learn about it. We can learn some
unexpected lessons from it. So in order to
make this claim, I need to really define what
I mean by social media. So what do I mean
by social media? I think this is the sort of
crucial aspect of social media is horizontal two way
transmission rather than vertical one
way transmission. I can say that to an
audience like this, but this is what I
normally have to say. It’s crucially media we
get from other people. And it travels along
social networks, and it results in the
creation of a distributed community or discussion. So you can feel part of a group
with other people who are not physically present by
exchanging media with them. So that means I’m not
including word of mouth. I’m including anything that
involves writing or copying of media. So clearly this is something
we could do on the internet. And we know what the network
topology of that looks like. But it turns out that
this is something that you don’t need a
digital network to do. And I would contend that social
media environment have in fact existed for centuries. So what do you need to have
a social media environment? I think you need to have,
obviously, literacy. Because in order to read
and write the messages you’re passing around,
you need to be literate. But you also need the cost of
copying them and delivering them to be sufficiently low. And I think this situation where
that combination first arose was in the late Roman Republic. Copying and delivering
information was cheap then. It’s cheap for us now
because of broadband. It was cheap then
because of slavery. And so slavery was
the Roman broadband. And this is a Roman
couple from– actually, the first century AD,
but around that time– this is a mural from Pompeii. And that chap on the right is
a guy called Terentius Neo. And he was a baker in Pompeii. And that’s his wife there. And this is a mural
from their house. And he is holding
a scroll and this is the label on the
scroll, this bit here. So when you had lots
of scrolls on a shelf, it was like the spine of a book. It was how you
could identify them. And she is holding what looks
like a Samsung Galaxy Note 3, but is in fact a Roman wax
tablet sort of note pad thing. And what seems to be the
case is that he is the baker, and she actually runs the
books and runs the business. So they are saying in
this mural, look at us, we are literate. They’re proud of their literacy. And they are members of
the Roman middle class, and not members of the elite. But this shows you that
literacy was quite widespread among both men and women. But it’s among the Roman
elite that we really see the social media
system working. Because they’ve
got– a rich noble would have actually
several slaves on his staff who were just messengers. And their job was to just
run around delivering and collecting
messages on his behalf. And so really big families have
their own essentially private postal services. And they could have messages
taken wherever they want. And they would also
have scribes so they can have documents
copied very quickly. And if we look at the
letters of Cicero, which is the best preserved
set of correspondence from this period. And interestingly, we have
his inbox and his out box. We can see how the Roman
social media system works. And so this is an example from
a letter of Cicero’s– “I sent you on March 24th a copy
of Balbus’ letter to me and of Caesar’s letter to him.” And this is a letter
that Cicero is writing– I think– to his friend Atticus. So if you think about
what’s happening here, Balbus has written to
Cicero, and Cicero’s copying that letter to Atticus. But Caesar has also
written to Balbus, and Balbus has copied
that letter to Cicero, and Cicero is now
copying that to Atticus. So this is a third
level retweet basically. And this is what people did. This is what they did
with their letters. And the reason they did
was that the Roman elite was a bunch of
intermarried families. And the political news
and the social news were very tangled up because
if two families fell out, that could actually
mean civil war. And if two families
formed an alliance, that would change the
political landscape. And that might be
cemented with a marriage. But then if there was a
divorce, that would mean that, potentially, there
was obstruction and there was going to
be political fallout. So what we see is
all of these member of the Roman elite
writing to each other. And we see some
quite forming letters that Cicero writes
to other people to remind them of that
he’s their friend when he’s in trouble. And then other people writing
to him when he’s on top. And there, they’re worried
about their position. And so the social
and the political are very closely mixed together. Here’s another example. On this occasion, Cicero
has written a letter criticizing Caesar, and he’s
put it into general circulation. So he’s sent copies of it
to many of his friends, and they’ve copied
to and passed it on. And he’s also kept– because
he kept copies of everything he sent– he would have
kept the rough copies, and his scribe would then make
the neat copies to send out. He says that he’s actually
allowed people who’ve said, I’ve heard you’ve written
a really scorching letter about Caesar. Can I have a copy of it? So this is what he’s
allow to happen here. And the same would
happen with speeches. So if you were a Roman
and you gave a speech and you’re particularly proud of
it, you would put copies of it in circulation. So that even people
who haven’t been able to hear you make
the speech could read it. And in fact, more people
might then read the speech than had actually seen
you deliver the speech. And Roman books were also
propagated in this way. A book would be a set
of rolls in a box. And if you were a
Roman author, you would choose the wealthiest,
most influential patron that you could. Actually, you would
choose the patron who had the most foot traffic
going through his library. And you would then
have the book put in his library or
your dedicated to him. And you would hope
that the people passing through the library would
read it and be so impressed that they would ask
for a copy of it. And at that point, he would
get his scribes to make a copy. And this is why the slaves and
the scribes are like broadband. The marginal cost per page
is zero at this point. Because he’s paid for
the slave, and he’s paying for the upkeep of
the slave in the same way that you pay you’re
broadband bill every month. And so you can have as many
pages copied out as you like, you just have to wait
for them to download. So this is why it’s
like broadband. So the books would then spread
from one library to another. And if you were
really successful, you could tell you’d
make it as a Roman author if you went to the book
seller’s street in Rome and you saw a copy
of your book on sale. That would mean enough people
were going to the book sellers and saying, have you got
the new Thomas Standage’s? And eventually they would
find someone who had it and make some copies so
that they could sell them. So they would only do that if
there was sufficient demand so books were
propagating socially. But my favorite
example is the way the news circulated in the
sort of official gazette. And it’s called
the “Acta Diurna.” It was founded by
Julius Caesar in 59 BC. And as someone who
works in news media, that means he sort of
founded our industry, which is quite funny. And this was a summary
of the debates that’s happened in the Senate and in
the People’s Assembly each day. And it was also a roundup of
births, deaths, marriages, and divorces, because those
were politically very important. And announcement of public
holidays, the gladiator results, that kind of stuff. And this newspaper
was produced each day. But it was bizarrely– by a sort
of traditions of the newspaper industry– the circulation
was apparently rather low. Only one copy of it was made. And it was put up in the Forum. And if you want to read it,
you have to go to the Forum and read it yourself. Or, if you were a wealthy
noble and you had a scribe, you could send a scribe
down to copy down the bits that are
most relevant to you. And then you could
read it over breakfast. And you would do that using a
device that looked like this. And this is a Roman iPad. And this is exactly
the size and the shape and the aspect ratio
of the modern iPad. And you’ll notice, Google
folks, that it’s not 16:9. So the Romans decided
that the big bevel, which Apples apparently
about to get rid of, and 4:3 was the way to go. Anyway, they also
have the smaller ones we saw early on which
is this sort of thing. These were things you
could note stuff down on. I’ll go back to the
Roman iPad there. So you could then
read the news on this, and then you would send
the news that you thought would interest your friends
to them in a letter. And we see this– we see it in
the letters of Pliny and Pliny the Elder and also in
letters of Cicero and Tacitus talked about this as well– that
when a Roman was outside Rome, they would expect their
friends to keep them abreast of the news
by sending them the most relevant
parts of the “Acta.” And in some cases, in
fact, entire copies of the “Acta
Diurna” transcribed. And that way they could keep
up with what was happening. But they didn’t just what the
raw content of the “Acta,” they wanted the discussion
of it the commentary and the analysis that their
friends would provide around it as well. So the Romans were using
their friends to sift the news and to deliver the news. It was a social distribution
system for all of this stuff because, of course,
there was no broadcast. There was no printing press. It was the only way you
could actually do it. And this seems to
work very well. We can tell that
news from Rome would get to Britain in
the West and Syria in the east in about
five or six weeks. And that’s really not bad. So news would propagate in
from the Provinces to Rome, and then would be
also distributed from the center outwards. And there were boats
going to and fro. Seneca is very amusing. He writes about how some people
were so obsessed with getting their mail that they– when
they saw the ships coming from Egypt with the mail– they
would rush down to the harbor. And he would sit down
and sort of laugh at them in the same way that
people who are addicted to their BlackBerrys
are mocked– or used to be when anyone
had BlackBerrys. And this is a sort
of being hooked on the dopamine rush to
getting your mail is something that even the
Romans were mocking. Probably the most effective
user for the Roman social media system was the apostle Paul. And he used it to
distribute the epistles. If you think about it,
epistles are letters. This is a classic example
of how Roman letters were passed around. And so, this is what
Paul says in his letter to the Colossians. So he’s got this
network of churches across Asia Minor and Greece. And he’s writing to them all. And he’s encouraging them to
read out the letters in church, and then to copy them
to local churches. And also to get
copies of the letter that he’s written
to those churches. And what happens
is all the chapters end up with a set of all the
letters that he’s written. And they end up being made
into part of the New Testament. And by doing this,
what he’s doing is binding together this
community of churches. He’s making them feel like
a distributed group that are connected to each other. And they hear about one of
the Church’s being persecuted, and they’re invited to pray
for the members of that church. And he resolves matters of
doctrine and answers questions. And that’s something that
they’re all interested in and they all want to hear about. So he helps to form
the Christian church in the first century
AD using social media. And the social
distribution of the epistle are still going on today. In churches on Sundays
when epistle is read out, that is the same
social distribution system still in action. Which is something that’s been
going on for a very long time. And in fact, what Paul’s doing
is he’s arguing at this stage with other members of
the early church who think that Christianity
should be just the Jews. And he’s arguing that, no, it
should be open to everyone. And because he essentially runs
the more effective social media campaign, he prevails. Which is why
Christianity ends up being an open religion
in the way that it did. So this is, as far
as I could see, the first example of
a social media system. You’ve got enough
literacy, you’ve got enough– it’s cheap
enough to copy and deliver information. And so you get social media
first in the Roman world. And what I do in
the book is I look at many other examples of this. So I’ll touch on a
couple of others. So here’s the second one. This is 1,500 years later. Again it involves
the Christian church. But instead of using social
media to reinforce the church, this is Martin Luther using it
to actually split the church. That wasn’t his
initial intention. Initially, he just
wanted to have a debate about the
doctrine of indulgences. And these are sort of tickets
that the Catholic church would sell you to get out of
purgatory after you died. And the idea was that if
you gave them some money to help them build– in this
case, Saint Peter’s Rome, that giant cathedral–
they would then give you a ticket that would
mean when you died, you wouldn’t have to spend
so long in purgatory. And Luther thought this
all sounded a bit silly. Because the sales people
were saying you could also buy tickets for your already
dead relatives who were, presumably, stuck in
purgatory at that point, and you’d be able to
release them straight away. And they were playing
well at fast and loose with this doctrine. So Luther drew up this list
of problems he had with this. If he’d done it these
days, he’d have done it– I’m sure– as a listicle. It would’ve been on BuzzFeed. You know, 95 crazy
questions the pope must answer about indulgences. But of course, it wasn’t. It was 1518, so
he didn’t do that. Instead, he wrote them in Latin
and pinned them to the door to church in Bittenburg
where he was a theologian. And this was the notice
board for the university. So he was inviting
people to come and debate with him about this. Now, this was so
explosive that people started to copy down the
theses and circulate them to their friends. These are the theses
that he wanted to debate. The 95 theses. And so far, this sounds like
a Roman distribution system. You’ve got people copying
stuff down in Latin and sending it to their
friends, manuscript form. But of course, what’s happened
since the Roman period is the printing press
has been invented. And so eventually, some
printers get hold of this and they print them. And print 1,000 copies, so
that’s a very big increase in the number of
copies in circulation. Those copies get
carried to other towns. Those printers there get
hold of it, they print it. Some of the printers
translate this into German so that more people can read it. And the result is that
these 95 propositions– written in, frankly, very
impenetrable theological Latin– spread
very, very quickly. And a contemporary
of Luther’s says that in fact it took
two weeks for the theses to spread throughout
Germany, and only a month for the rest of
continental Europe. So this was extraordinary. And it was a complete
surprise to Luther. He wasn’t expecting to do this. He said, the theses “are
printed and circulated far beyond my expectation.” But he realized this presented
him with an opportunity. If he wanted to take his
message about problems with the corruption
of the Catholic Church and the need to reform
it to the people, he could use this mechanism. So he followed up with a series
of pamphlets, mostly written in German. And a very easy to
understand German which avoided any sort of
dialectic– regional dialects. And he would simply take the
text on one of these pamphlets that he would write and give
it to a printer in his town. And they would
print 1,000 copies. And then those copies would
ripple to other towns. And printers there would
print them as well. They would spread and
spread in this way. And he didn’t have
to do anything. The audience was sufficiently
interested in his message that they amplified
it themselves. And the printers were sort
of special super nerds who could make this application
much, much more efficient. And so you could measure
how effectively his campaign worked. Today, we measure social media
campaigns by how many +1s or likes or retweets or
reblogs or repins they get. But for Luther it was
the number of reprints by printers that’s the
really crucial thing. And it shows that you can do
Martin Luther’s traffic stats. And it looks like this. And this shows you have a great
big spike in traffic in 1523, which is the height
of the Reformation. Where you’ve got
all the order world 353 prints of
1,000– maybe 2,000– copies of these pamphlets. What’s happening here is
that the blue pamphlets are Latin ones and the
red ones are German ones. And the dark bits are the
number of new pamphlets that Martin Luther
is issuing each year. And the white ones are
the number of reprints. So you see, mostly what he’s
doing is writing in German. But he did write some in
Latin because he was also addressing the
theological audience to who he wrote in Latin. You can see that the retweets
of existing pamphlets are sort of more
important than the number of the actual pamphlets
that he’s putting out. And overall, there was something
like 5 to 7 million pamphlets by Luther and others
floating around Europe within the first 10
years of the Reformation. And the result was the splitting
of Western Christendom, and the emergence of Protestant
churches and Protestant Christianity. So this is the result of
social media campaign that is helped along by
improvements in the technology of propagation, in
this case printing. Here’s another example very dear
to me which is coffee houses. And coffee houses were
particularly popular in England. And they became popular
in the second half of the 17th century. And coffee houses were
media sharing platforms. You went to them
because they had all sorts of things to read. So this is an
example on the right of what a pamphlet
would look like. And again, pamphlets
were very often written in the form of letters, even
if they weren’t actually letters to real people. So this is a letter
from a gentleman in Kent to a friend in London. And this is a
literary device just to say a particular thing
about what’s going on. But it was the sort of thing
you’d find in coffee houses where you could go and you would
find a very free conversation. And you could read all manner
of printed news instead of being used books– which
are precursors of newspapers. There would be
pamphlets, there would be handwritten newsletters that
were called “Letters of News.” These were gathered by the
precursors of journalists. They were people who went
around listening and talking and exchanging gossip and
then they’d write it down and they would send
these “Letters of News” to paying subscribers
in the countryside. And again, that’s quite a Roman
sort of way of doing things. So you can find all of
these things in coffee house and you could discuss
stuff with people. And it was a very alluring
information environment. And we see this from the
diary of Samuel Pepys. He often says, “service
to the coffee house.” And he tells you all the sorts
of amazing people he would meet and things you would learn. That he would meet a merchant
from the South Seas who’d seen people who’d learn
to write with their feet. Or there’s a new kind of
fruit called a pineapple, or that sort of thing. And so it was a very alluring
information environment. In fact, some people
thought it was too alluring. And that people were
spending too much of their time just hanging
out and coffeehouse networking and sharing gossip
with their friends. So it’s a very sort
of recognizably modern environment. And one of the reasons that it
was that people were encouraged to mix socially in a way
that they otherwise normally wouldn’t. So there was a
convention of politeness in coffee houses
and a convention that you would leave
distinctions of social class behind as you entered there. So you would enter,
you would pay a penny for dish of coffee–
and that was the kind of admission
price– and then you could join in
the conversation. And the idea was, as a
contemporary description, “gentleman mechanic,
lord and scoundrel mix and are all of a piece.” What this means
is that ideas were able to cross social
boundaries in a way that they previously
couldn’t have done. And so this was what made going
to a coffee house so exciting. That you never knew–
the serendipity was part of the attraction. You never knew who you might
meet or what you might learn. And I have many more
examples in the book. This is a commonplace book. Commonplace books
were notebooks where you would write down cool stuff. And it might be a
poem that had been sent by a friend, a new
sonnet by Shakespeare perhaps. Or an aphorism– maybe you’re
reading one of the classics, and there was a
particularly good quote from Cicero or from Tacitus
or something like that. You think, oh that’s great,
I’m going to write that down in my commonplace book. And that way, when you
wanted to remember it later, you’d know that it was
in your commonplace book. And then you might
also write a letter to a friend saying,
by the way, I’ve come across this really
great quote today. And they would then– if
they thought it was awesome as well, they would copy it
into their commonplace books. Sometimes people would
exchange commonplace books. Or they would sometimes
share commonplace books within families, within groups
of friends, where people would write these things down
and write poems and comment on each other’s stuff. And this looks to be
very similar to what we see with, say,
tumblr and Pinterest, where 80 percent of the content
circulating on those networks is rebills or repins of
other people’s stuff. So it’s self expression
through the curation of other people’s content. And some of what you
post is original, but actually the
vast majority is the selection of
other people stuff. So that is quite a
striking parallel I think, with the way some
social platforms work today. And there are others as well. I talk about pamphlets
in the English Civil War, the circulation of poetry
in the Tudor Court, the circulation of
pamphlets in the run up to the American
Revolution, the circulation of poems on tiny slips
of paper in the run up to the French Revolution. And all of these
have characteristics that are very similar
to different aspects of social media today. So the idea, that
is, that this has all got a much deeper and richer
history than we might think. So what happened it? Why is it that we’ve failed
to notice this before? Well, I think the reason is
that we had this big shift that took place in the
19th century where we went from this sort
of network topology to this sort of thing. And essentially,
machines were invented starting with the steam
press and later radio and TV transmitters. That made it possible to deliver
information single message to a large audience
very, very efficiently. And this changed the way
that information travelled. People still wrote
each other letters and exchanged
information socially. But this is was
much more efficient that more of their media diet
came from these centralized one way broadcast sources. If you look at newspapers in the
beginning of the 19th century, the average circulation
newspaper was 1,000 or 2,000/ they were very, very
local and they were sent to the local’s social platforms. Most of what was
in newspapers was letters sent in by readers,
reports of speeches, and so on. It was not articles written
by professional journalists. And what happens by the
end of the 19th century is that steam presses make it
possible to have newspapers with a million copies
being produced a day. And what this does–
because the equipment needed to do this to reach
a large audience is so expensive–
that gradually, the scale of these
platforms goes up and the barrier to entry
gets bigger and bigger. This means that the access
to that technology– the ability to send your
thoughts to lots of people– is concentrated into the
hands of a very small number of people– journalists and
opinion leaders, politicians. And most people are
not participating in the system other than to
be recipients of information. And I think the most sort of
the infamous example of this is the Nazi Volksempfanger. So we’ve heard of the
Volkswagen, the people’s car. This is the people’s receiver. And the Nazis recognized
the power of radio to impress their view of the
world on the German people. And the Volksempfanger
was deliberately designed not to be able to
pick up foreign broadcast. So all you could listen to
was the Fuhrer banging on. “Dans Deutschland
hurt dem Fuhrer.” So, “the whole of
Germany is the Fuhrer.” You could see that
there they all are, gathered symbolically
around this radio. This is as far away from the
social media distribution as is possible to get. This is a single man
imposing his view of the world on
an entire nation. This is one way. And this is as unequal
as it’s possible to be. But of course what happened
in the past 10 years is that the internet
has massively reduced the cost of delivering
information to large audiences. So it’s now possible for social
distribution systems to compete with broadcast and with
mass media in a way that it previously couldn’t. And we can see
information to shifting. We can see people are
spending less time watching TV and reading newspapers, and
more time on social platforms getting their friends to filter
interesting stuff towards them. And there are lots of surveys
of young people showing that they don’t read
newspapers at all. And my children don’t
watch television, they kind of watch YouTube. And a lot of what
they watch on YouTube is usually generated content
made by people like them for people like them. So I think this means we need
to look at the history of media in a very different way. We used to think
of it like this– where we had old media, which
was analog, and broadcast. And then the
internet came along, and we have new
media and digital and it was more
social in nature. And this is a part
of the picture. I think if we look at
the last 2,000 years, it looks like this. We need to have this
period of really old media because nobody is
not really that old. I have the arbitrary
date of 1833 here. Because that’s the year that
the first penny newspaper was launched, “The New York Sun.” And it was the first newspaper
that adopted the new mass media model where most of the money
came from advertisers not subscribers. And you use the fact that
you had a large audience to appeal to advertisers who
then gave you that money. To bootstrap that model, the
founder of “The New York Sun” did a rather clever thing. Instead of selling his newspaper
at $0.06 like everyone else, he sold it at $0.01 which
means he’d lose money. So he copied ad words
from the other newspapers and put them in. And then he went to
advertisers and said, look, all of these other
companies are advertising. Maybe you should. And they all fell
for it and signed up. So that was how he
bootstrapped the model. And that model
worked very nicely, thank you, for
the media industry until just a few years ago. At the peak in 2007, an
average American newspaper got 87 percent of its
revenue from advertising. So that turned out
to be unsustainable, and they’re now having
to find new models. So I think we need to
look at it like this and we have to recognize that
there was this very long period of really old media
which, in many ways, is similar to new media. And what new media has
done is brought back the spirit of the coffeehouse
and the other social platforms that were around before
the advent of mass media. So that means I think given
that similarity between really old media and new media,
that ancient old social media systems have lessons
for us today. Many of the questions we
have about social media today actually arose in conjunction
with these ancient social media systems as well. So I think that could
be quite informative. And again, in the book I look
at several examples of this. But I’m just going to
touch on three of them now that relate to
the three examples that I gave you earlier
on– so the Roman, Luther and coffeehouses. Let’s start with this one. Is social media merely
a dangerous destruction that wastes time? This is very common to
critique of social media today. In particular, the idea
that social networking should really be
called not working. And it’s a sort of
way of avoiding work rather in the way of
doing anything useful. And this turns out to
be a timeless complaint. So this is Oxford in the 1670’s. Anthony Wood, who was
an academic in Oxford, is very worried about the
fact that, “solid and serious learning is in decline.” And the students are
not actually doing work anymore because they’re
in coffee houses all the time. And it’s not just in Oxford. Meanwhile in Cambridge,
“Hours are spent in talking and less profitable reading
of newspapers– scholars are so greedy after news
they neglect all for it.” And another pamphlet
from the period warns that coffee houses
are “Great enemies to diligence and
industry– the ruin of many serious and hopeful
young gentleman and tradesmen.” And so this is all quite
a modern sounding critique of these very
alluring platforms. They’re so alluring that
people go in and don’t realize what’s happened and
hours later as they emerge realizing that the
afternoon has disappeared. It has turned out to be
actually exactly wrong. If you look at what
coffee houses actually did in the late
17th century, they turned out to be– rather
than enemies of diligence and industry– they turned out
to be crucibles of innovation. Because of this mixing
of ideas and people who had previously not been
able to encounter each other, this was a really,
really fantastic place to come up with new
ideas, new ventures, whether that was joint
stock companies, whether it was the scientific revolution. The Royal Society came out of
meetings held in coffeehouses by scientists. Isaac Newton writes “Principa
Mathematica,” the foundation stone of modern science in
order to settle a coffeehouse argument between
Hook, Haley, and Rand about the nature of the
inverse square law of gravity and its relationship to
the shapes of orbits. Lloyd’s of London starts
off as a coffeehouse where marine shippers meet
and discuss insurance. And then they
realize that this is something they’re
all interested in. You have Lloyd’s list
pinned to the wall. It turns into Lloyd’s of London. It goes from coffeehouse
to insurance market. Similarly, there’s
another coffeehouse called Jonathan’s where
all the stock traders would meet that turns into the
London Stock Exchange. So all of this innovation
comes out of coffeehouses, because they’re very
fertile environments where people and ideas can mix. And I think there’s
a lesson for us there, that social media
offers us similar opportunities within companies, between
companies, and as scientists or individuals or artists–
that we can encounter people and exchange ideas and
come up with new cool stuff as a result of it. Second question. So again, this is a very
sort of current question. The role of social media in
revolutions and to what extent were Facebook and
Twitter factors in causing Arab Spring
and that sort of thing. Well, it turns out that this
is also a very old debate, and we can ask Martin Luther. Martin Luther says, “From the
rapid spread of the theses, I gather what the greater
part of the nation thinks of indulgences.” So this is a phenomenon
that media scholars call synchronization of opinion. If you were Luther and
you saw your pamphlets spreading like wildfire–
One description was that they were
more seized than sold. So people really couldn’t wait
to get their hands on them. Then that told
you that there was quite a lot of support
for your views. And more importantly, if you
were one of the readers of one of Luther’s pamphlets,
pamphlets were quite accessible. They cost about the
same as a chicken. So they were much, much
less expensive than buying a book, which was
like buying a car. So they really were
accessible to ordinary people. And if you went to the
printer in your town and said, I hear there’s a new Martin
Luther, have you got a copy? And the printer
said, no, sold out. Then you knew that lots of
other people in your town were interested in
what Luther had to say and probably agreed with you
that he was on to something. And so this was how
people across Europe were able to recognize that
their views about the nature of the Catholic Church and
corruption in the higher echelons of the Catholic
church was shared by large numbers
of other people. And that’s ultimately
what enabled the Reformation to get going. And so I think the way
of thinking about this– And we saw the same
with the Arab Spring, where previous
efforts by governments had been successful
to stifle outbursts of local dissent,
local protests. But social media
eventually allowed people in one part of
Tunisia to tell people in the rest of Tunisia
what was going on. And then people across
Tunisia could say, well, hang on a minute, we all
think that this isn’t on. And then you
actually get change. And so I think the
way that you should think about this is that
social media doesn’t actually trigger or start revolutions. There’s an underlying
grievance in both cases here about the corruption
of the Catholic church or of the despotic leaders
in various Arab countries. And that’s the ultimate cause. And once there’s a
spark, social media synchronizes opinion
and allows the protest to spread much more quickly. So it’s like an accelerant. It doesn’t start a fire, it
helps it spread more quickly. This is Jared Cohen’s
idea, a Google person. And I think he’s put his
finger on it by saying, it’s the accelerant, is the
right way of thinking about it. Finally, is social media a fad? Well, I hope that my very
brief tour 2,000 years of it has convinced you
to actually this is a very old idea with
very deep roots and a very rich history. If we go back to
this chart here you can see that actually
it’s old media that is the historical anomaly here. This was just a
consequence of the fact that technologies to
propagate information really quickly to large audiences
used to be really expensive. And they used to be only
available to a small number of people. And there were business
models you could build around that to do with scarcity
and local monopolies. But they don’t work
anymore, as we’ve seen what’s happened to
the newspaper industry in particular. So that was the anomaly. And really, new media and its
similarity to really old media is a sort of reversion to
the way things used to be. So I think this is a fad at all. I think historically,
the broadcast era was the sort of fad-sh bit. It was the historical anomaly. So I think that means that we,
users of social media today, are as to a centuries
long tradition even if we didn’t realize it. What I’ve to tried to do is
to put our use of social media today in historical context. And there are these
very direct parallels between the source of
social media we use today, and the source that existed
in the past like this. So I hope I’ve convinced you
that social media doesn’t just connect us to each other today,
it also links us to the past. Thank you. Oh, this is my book
on the subject. This is what it looks like. AUDIENCE: So I
was wondering what lessons you can draw from
the really old media in terms of something else you mentioned,
which was the business models for newspapers that have
kind of become obsolete now? TOM STANDAGE: Well, I think all
media companies are struggling with now is how they make
sharing their friend. And we saw in– the music
industry was hit first by this. And the model of
the music industry has sort of ended up with is
that the emphasis on selling music– that’s
going to be of much more part of their
revenues in future. And much more of it is going
to come from basically tickets to live events and
merchandise and so on. So there’s been
that shift there. Similarly, newspapers
are shifting away from advertising funded models
to subscription funded models. Some of them can do
advertising from it, but they can’t– the
number of papers, the number of publications that
that model will sustain is– because they’re all
competing globally– is nothing like as
big as it used to be. But my favorite example is
actually the Asian video game model. Where instead of the
consoles and selling the games and the
licensing fees to model that we have in
the West, you have to model of distributing
the client software. And you actually want
as many copies of it to be made as possible, and
to be as easy as possible to download it. And then you get a very large
number of people playing a game and it’s free to play. And then you sell
in-game upgrades. And that’s where you’ll
model comes from. So this is a model that works. The more widely your
client software is pirated, the better it works. And I think what
we’re all trying to do in different
parts of the industry is work out how we make
sharing our friends in our particular industry. AUDIENCE: So for every person
that creates something great based on social media or every
group of people that does, there’s the average person. Where it is genuinely
just a big time suck and they’re not going to
create the next “Principia Mathematica”. So are there any lessons we can
glean from the really old media model to increase the amount
of the great things that come from social media? TOM STANDAGE: Well, one
of the timeless complaints about media, whenever
technology makes it easier to distribute stuff is
that there’s then too much. And that the wrong people are
publishing the wrong thing. So we see this now about
the trivialization, the coarsening of debate. And one man’s trivialization is
another man’s democratization. And if we look at what
happened to– So Erasmus is complaining around
the time of Luther that there are all these
pamphlets flying around. They’re really short. They’re in German so
they’re really easy to read. And this means no one’s reading
the classics in Latin and Greek anymore, which he thinks
is a big– terrible. So it’s very similar to
sort of modern complaints that as media becomes easier
to consume and more people access to it that
it’s a bad thing. But if you look at what
happened– and then there was a sort
of huge increase in the number of books
that were published. And people felt very
overwhelmed by it. And people feel overwhelmed
by what’s happening now. But what actually happened
in the case of printing in the last big
step change here, was that people figured out
mechanisms, technologies, to cope and to sift the
good stuff from the bad. So things like– in the
case of books– book reviews and tables of contents and
bibliography and indexes. And what all of
those things are is they are ways to figure out
whether a particular book is relevant to what you’re
doing and to find the bits that are
relevant to you quickly. Without having to read–
because you can’t plausibly read all of the books
about everything. We’re used to that now. We’re never going
to be able books. So instead, we rely on
these other mechanisms to identify the good stuff. And I think that’s
what we’re going to have with– we’ve obviously
seen this with the internet. We had the Yahoo
directory model. That was great for a while. Then we had the
search engine model. That also got its merits. Now, we seem to be in a world
where we are using social as part of the
filtering process. And there’s this combination
of search and social that Google is doing as well. So I think all of this is the
process by which we determine where the valuable stuff is. And what’s really good
about these versions of it is that it’s capable of
producing different answers for different people. So what I think is
the really cool stuff will be different from what you
think is the really cool stuff. But as far as I’m
concerned, this is the task you are
engaged in which is helping people find
the– organizing the world’s information. And so what you’re doing is
part of this very, very long historical continuum
of some of what people have been
trying to do before. AUDIENCE: What are your thoughts
on the rate of information delivery and how that’s
changed and maybe effected attention spans or
anything like that? TOM STANDAGE: Well,
certainly the analogy isn’t perfect in the sense
that the internet is global, instant, searchable,
and maybe, permanent. We don’t know how
permanent it is. So the analogy though
I think is close enough to be informative because we
see the same social reactions. And my thesis is, in all of
my writing about the history of technology, that we
essentially– our brains are still running
the same Stone Age software and
different technologies come and go and just push the
same buttons in our brains. So the Twitter pushes
the same button for me as coffeehouses did
for the Samuel Pepys. So in that sense, I’m sort of
arguing that the rate of change doesn’t– You know, people have always
complained about this before. A good example would
be the step change in the range of information
that occurred with the telegraph in the 19th century. If you look at how
stockbrokers used to deal with their
clients, you might meet your stockbroker once a
year, or maybe twice a year. And you might say,
I’m going to sell tea, I’m going to buy gold. What you think will
happen to the price of tea in next six months? And then the telegraph
meant that you could have multiple price
updates every day, globally. And stockbrokers were not really
terribly impressed by this. Because it meant that they
had to work a lot harder, they were always
getting messages to buy or sell this,
that and the other. And they thought this
was a big problem. But of course, then the next
generation of stockbrokers thought this was totally
normal and got used to it. So we actually see this
pattern again and again. And we see the complaint
that attention spans are getting shorter. We particularly see it with
the telegraph, actually. That it makes people nervous. That we only skim the
surface of things. That it leads to politicians
speaking in soundbites. These are all
actually complaints that arrive in the 19th century. So they’re not actually new
and the world didn’t end then. People have gotten used to it. So I think that just
tells us that we will just get used to it again. We’ll have to find and
identify and create these coping mechanisms. Some of which are
technological, like tables of contents or search engines. And some of which are
social technologies, customs about how we should
and should not use things. But that’s what’s particularly
bewildering about this. And living through a period
where we’re still figuring out our answers to those questions. AUDIENCE: I was just
looking at your timeline and wanting to go
back the other way. I think you can add two
more giant blocks of time to that view which
is the Dark Ages. Which was a very centralized
media from the church world. There’s a thousand year block
where it wasn’t the old media. TOM STANDAGE: So
what’s the other block? AUDIENCE: There
was another block before that was in the age
of primitives and ziggurats. Again, strong central control. TOM STANDAGE: Well, yes
I see what you mean. Especially, it
depends what you mean by the consumption of media. So most people aren’t
consuming it at all. In the Dark Ages, you’ve got– AUDIENCE: Well, it’s the church. TOM STANDAGE: You’ve got
monks writing stuff out, and then you’ve got the pulpit
as a sort of quasi broadcast medium. Yes. But I think that most
people are not– where are they getting– they’re just
not consuming media at all. So the actual– so it’s
very hard to work out what the balance of
distributed versus– centralized versus
social media is– I should also stress this is
very much Western centric view. I have been looking for
non Western examples, and there’s some quite
nice cases of social poetry in 10th and 11th century
Japan, for example. And what I’m hoping
will happen is that the publication
of this book will sort of flush
out some more examples and I’ll be able to broaden it. Going back to the period
before the Romans, I think basically the
literacy rates were very low. If you look at– there are
examples of– you’ll see, there are a couple I have
in the book where they’re are scribes in Egypt who
have a sort of poetry club. And they send each other poems. But they were really very,
very few examples of it because literacy is
so so restricted. And in fact, in Egypt’s,
the scribes deliberately avoided adopting the much
more efficient technology of the alphabet
because they wanted it to be hard to read and write. Because they wanted to
preserve their special status as people who could do it. And so, they actually fought
against this far more efficient way of the way of doing things. So that’s why I think it
really starts with the Romans where you have a reasonably
widespread use of media by ordinary people and then they
are sharing it in a social way. AUDIENCE: The Library of
Alexandria comes to mind. Also, the retrieving of the
Buddhist [INAUDIBLE] from India and spread of Buddhism on
the Silk Road is another– TOM STANDAGE: So the
retrieval of– So that’s involving
written documents. AUDIENCE: Written
documents, yes. TOM STANDAGE: Oh, brilliant. They– yeah. So this is the kind of thing
that is being flushed out. That’s what I want to find. Thank you. AUDIENCE: You were saying
that if your book was copied or your letter was copied
in– that’s like re tweeting. And now, people whenever
they publish something or your YouTube videos
if a lot of views then you’re theoretically–
right– making more money? But that didn’t seem
to be part of it. Because if that
happened today, right, there would be all this
copyright, oh my gosh, people are selling my book. So was they’re not–
I mean, were people not trying to earn money? There’s definitely some
difference here, I’m not– TOM STANDAGE: Yeah
no, that’s true. So I mean, copyrights are
a relatively modern idea. It goes back to the beginning
of the 18th century. And so Roman authors
didn’t expect to be able to make
money because they knew that the only way to
get their book out there was unrestricted
copying by the audience. And that was– they
couldn’t imagine that any other way of doing it. And they wrote books with a
view to becoming more famous, winning patronage,
getting a nice job. And that’s how they
benefited from them. So that’s clearly a different
way of doing things. What then later
happens with printing is that pamphleteers
would be paid little or nothing
to write pamphlets. They would be paid in the form
of copies of their pamphlets that they could give to people. And again, it was
a patronage thing. So it’s rather like the
deal I have with WordPress. Which is that I don’t pay
them, but I give them content and then they gave
me distribution. So I’m paid back in the
ability to reach an audience. So that’s quite a similar model. And this idea that you own
stuff and you have a right to make money from it is
actually quite recent. And as we can see, it
it’s now become harder to enforce than it used to be. So that sort of
ownership of content is very much a mass media
way of looking at the world. And we do see some
people asking, how you look beyond that? Should you have your music on
Spotify and then make money? But you hardly make
anything from it at all. And make money from other
things if you’re a musician? And to what extent? Cory Doctorow gives away
his books as ebooks. And we’re all trying to work
out what the sort of new models are around that. But there were
people in the past you managed to make a
living from doing things in a sort of indirect way. So maybe we can borrow
some of their models. AUDIENCE: I haven’t
read the book, so I’m not sure if
there’s a chapter that talks about the culture
difference like West or East difference in terms of
the influence of social media revolution? And also– TOM STANDAGE: I only
consider Western. AUDIENCE: Western, OK. TOM STANDAGE: So I’m aware
of a few examples in Asia, but like I don’t feel I
can see into the literature there so I don’t think
I have a sort of– I’m very aware of my limitations
of my understanding of that. So I’d be grateful for
any suggestions you have. How do you see the difference
in the attitude towards those? AUDIENCE: I’m from China. At least, you know I don’t
know too much on the old media phase. But even in the current phase,
right, after 2000, there’s no social network but there’s
a similar– Facebook, Twitter, like that. But they all are kind
of run differently. At the least, it’s
not truly distributed. You still have a
little bit censored under government control. So that’s kind of a
very hybrid model. TOM STANDAGE: Well, yes. I mean, to be honest, one
of the striking things about social networking
in the West as well today is that it’s
extremely centralized and it’s run by
private companies. So we treat it as though
it’s a public sphere, but it’s not really. It’s not a town square,
it’s more like a mall. It’s privately owned. And if Facebook doesn’t
like something that you say or whatever they can
shut down your page. But again, I think there’s
a historical analogy there. Which is if you look at what
happened to AOL and CompuServe, they were swept away by the open
standards of web publishing. And I wonder whether the same
is true for social media. There have been various attempts
to build open distributed standards for social media. But it seems weird that
I can set up my own web server or my own
email server, but I have to go to
Facebook or Twitter or Google to do
social networking. So that’s one of things
I’m very interested to see how that changes. Because that may be
a historical anomaly. It’s just that doing
timely, in order delivery of social streams is really,
really hard distributing. Usenet used to do this. And it didn’t do
it terribly well. It was very slow. So there are advantages
to a centralized model, but there are drawbacks as well. AUDIENCE: So there’s
a concept called WeMedia is that you can comment. WeMedia. I think at least in
China it’s very popular. You just set up some
site, and the public, some journalism
just quit that job. It run some sites themselves a– TOM STANDAGE: But it’s still
a centralized site then. I mean, I think we need a sort
of equivalent to iMap or HTTP that does establishing social
connections– basically friend connections, status
updates, that sort of stuff. And there have been
various attempts to do it. The most recent one
was called Temp.iO, which was quite
clever I thought. But it’s hard to see
how any of these things can get off the
ground because you need to get the ball rolling. And the existing networks
have such a big advantage because they have these
massive advantages of scale. So I don’t know. But it happened with the
web, so maybe it can happen. Thank you. Great, well, thank
you all very much, and it’s great to be here.

5 thoughts on “Tom Standage, “Social Media: A Historical Perspective” | Authors at Google

  1. i knew its a major con whenever some breakfast show says
    "new media" and harps on about "wasting your life" on it (while typically trying to get you to waste your time on what some producer thinks is great).

  2. I found this presentation to be beyond boring and far from engaging. Ted Talks is so much better than these presentations. Google needs to step their shit up

  3. Karl Marx did notice the role played by Social Media. He has documented it in his works. He wrote in his book Grundrisse about the Electric Telegram Revolution and how it was changing society and social relations.

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