Tom Standage: “Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years” | Talks at Google
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Tom Standage: “Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years” | Talks at Google


PRESENTER: I’d like to
welcome everyone to our talk with Tom Standage, who’s
currently on his phone, I believe, on Facebook,
which is appropriate for– well, it’s
OK for the topic. [LAUGHTER] TOM STANDAGE: Twitter. Twitter. Twitter. FEMALE SPEAKER: Twitter. Oh, much better. Tom is currently
at editor at– is editor at “The Economist,”
editor-in-chief of the economist.com. Am I getting that correct? TOM STANDAGE: That is correct. FEMALE SPEAKER: And
has written a book on social media starting
back 2,000 years. I think we’re all excited
to hear what he has to say. So please join me
in welcoming Tom. [APPLAUSE] TOM STANDAGE: Thank you. Thanks very much. It’s great to be
here, particularly to be not just at
Cambridge and at Google, but in the age of
Lovelace work as well. And my daughter has
two guinea pigs. Actually, they died. But they were called
Artemis and Athena because she’s really into
Ancient Greek mythology. And she’s going to get
two new guinea pigs. And she knows she’s going
to call one of them Ada. But she’s looking
for a similarly– she wants another kind of
epic female figure from the history– FEMALE SPEAKER: Augusta. TOM STANDAGE: Augusta? AUDIENCE: Same person. Same person. AUDIENCE: They’re the same one. TOM STANDAGE: Oh, same name. OK. From “The History of
Science and Technology.” But what’s her name? They just made that movie with– [INTERPOSING VOICES] TOM STANDAGE: Oh, OK. Brilliant. OK, well, fantastic. I’ll talk to you
afterwards and get these. Anyway, so it’s great
to be here to talk to you about my crazy idea
that social media is old. But this is something I
make a habit of doing, which is to look
at the precursors of modern technologies,
whether they are the internet or
social media or planet hunting or artificial
intelligence. And these are all things I’ve
covered in my previous books. So this time, I’m looking at
the prehistory of social media going back to the Romans. So in order to get
away with that claim, I need to define what
I mean by social media. So what do I mean
by social media? So I think the brilliant
characteristic of social media is it’s media we get
from other people. So it’s horizontal, P2P
conversational transfer of stuff rather than vertical
top-down one-directional broadcast transfer of stuff. And here is a way of putting
that into prose– media we get from other
people, the idea that it’s exchanged
along a social graph, and that that
creates a distributed discussion or community. So what I’m doing now,
this is not social media. There is no media involved here. It’s just a speech. Similarly, passing on
gossip by word of mouth I don’t count as media. It’s when you have the
use of technology– media is basically the use of
communications technology, as far as I’m concerned. Then you get social media. So you then are able to have
this distributed conversation with people who
aren’t directly there. We’re used to doing this
on the internet today. You choose your social network. You map your social
graph onto it. You add other people who aren’t
on your social graph onto it. And then stuff can flow
around in this rather sort of unpredictable P2P way. And that person
in the middle can connect the graph on the left
to the graph on the right. And so we understand how that
works today on the internet. But I don’t think you actually
need a digital network to make all of this possible. And I think that social
media environments, if you know what
you’re looking for, and if you use my definition to
define what you’re looking for, have actually been
around for centuries. And the first one
you get is actually in the late Roman Republic
in the first century BC. So in order to have a
social media environment, I think you need
to have two things. You need to have
literacy, so people need to be able to
operate the technology, in this case
reading and writing. And you also need the cost
of copying and delivering information to be zero
or very close to zero. And we have broadband,
which delivers the second of those
two conditions today. The Romans didn’t. But they had slavery. So slavery was the
Roman broadband. And slavery makes the
marginal cost per page zero. So if you’re Cicero, and
you’ve bought your scribe, and you’re paying for his upkeep
and the roof over his head, then when you want him
to copy another document, you give him another
document, and you wait for him to copy it. So you just have to wait
for the extra document. And it’s just like
in a broadband, you can download as
much as you like, as long as you’re
prepared to wait. Similarly, many
rich nobles in Rome had entire staffs
of people called tabellarii who were messengers. There was no public
postal service. And so what you did
was you employed a group of these people,
and they had specific rounds that they did. And they went to lots
of your friends’ houses and picked up anything
that they had for you and delivered stuff in
the other direction. And we see this in
the letters of Cicero. He writes to one of
his friends, oh, now your wretched messenger’s
knocking on the door again. Just give me a chance, will you? And this is how it worked. And if you didn’t have
access to messengers, then you would just give
letters to your friends, and they would be heading
in the right direction. And it was very much like
sort of best-effort delivery. They would take it in the
direction of Asia Minor. And then they’d go, oh, I’m
not going the right way. And they’d give it
to someone else. So you sometimes had to send
two or three copies because it wouldn’t always get through,
and then ships would sink and things like that. But essentially, we have a
peer-to-peer transmission system. And we have very
low-cost delivery, at least for those
people who are literate and for those of the rich. So what we see is a
social media ecosystem emerging within the Roman elite. And the Roman elite is a bunch
of intermarried rich families. And so for them, the political
news and the social news are intertwined. They’re the same. If two families fall out, it
can literally lead to civil war. Whereas if two families
decide to get together and then they cement this
alliance with a marriage, then that means that
maybe war will be averted. So knowing who’s
going to marry who and if there are divorces and
births and deaths and so on becomes actually crucial to your
survival in the Roman world. So if we look at one
of Cicero’s letters, here’s a great example. “I sent you on March 24th
a copy of Balbus’ letter to me and of Caesar’s
letter to him.” I think Cicero is writing to his
friend Atticus, in this case. They wrote to each other
every day, at least once. And they wrote things
like, write to me anyway even if you have nothing to say. They just wanted to
be on the network. And what’s happening here is
Cicero is saying to Atticus, I sent you on March 24 a
copy of Balbus’ letter to me. So think about that letter. That letter’s gone
from Balbus to Cicero. And then Cicero’s
copied it to Atticus. And Caesar’s letter to
him, so that letter’s gone from Caesar to Balbus
to Cicero to Atticus. So that’s sort of a
third order retweet. And this is the way it
worked, that the Romans were writing to each other. They were passing
the news around. They were quoting bits of
letters, although sometimes whole letters, to
each other to keep each other informed
of what was going on. They could also write
these open letters. So this is another
example from Cicero. In this case, he’s written an
open letter criticizing Caesar. And he says to one
of his friends, “You say my letter has
been widely published. Well, I don’t care. Indeed, I myself allowed several
people to take a copy of it.” Cicero’s interesting
because we have his inbox, and we also have his outbox. So he would dictate a
letter to his scribe Tiro. And when they were
happy with it, and they’d sort of
edited it a bit, Tiro would write out
the neat form of it, and it would be sent
to the recipient. And then copies could also be
made from the rough version and sent to other recipients. And the rough version
would stay in the outbox. And so if anyone were to
come around Cicero’s house, oh, I hear you wrote a really
scorching letter about Caesar. Can I have a copy of it? And they would then pass
these onto their friends. So this is very much
like writing a pamphlet or a bit like writing
an open letter to the newspaper in the sense
that you expect lots of people to see it and you expect
it to be passed around. And Cicero writes about
this, that he writes in a particular
tone of voice when he’s writing an open letter
and in another tone of voice when he’s writing to friends. And then he’ll sometimes
say– and this bit’s not for circulation, but. And that would be a
paragraph, and he might even write that bit in
his own hand so that his scribe can’t see it. But the general presumption
was that these letters were going to be
copied and shared. And we have other
examples of this, too. We have the example
of Roman books, and Roman books were
also social media. They were passed around
from person to person. And they would be a
box full of scrolls. And if go back to here,
the guy on the right here, this is Terentius Neo. He’s a baker in Pompeii. And he’s holding a scroll, and
it’s got a red label on it. And the red label
is like the spine of a book in that it
allows us to identify what it is when it’s on a shelf. And his wife there, who seems
to have done the books for him– he was baking and she
was doing the money– is holding a Samsung Galaxy
Note 3, as you can see. But it’s a Roman wax tablet,
and it was used to make notes. And you used it with a stylus. And that was how you kind
of kept track of things. And in fact, we see Cicero
sending sort of text messages in Rome using one
of these things. He’ll write a
letter to somebody. The messenger will carry
it, bring it back, and then have it written the
result, the answer on it. And that way, they don’t
have to use papyrus. Anyway, so books
would have looked like a bunch of these
scrolls in a box. And if I was an author
and I’d written a book, then I wouldn’t expect
to make any money on it. What I would do instead is
I would give a copy of it to– I would dedicate
the book to the richest, most influential person I knew
who had a big library with lots of foot traffic
going through it. And the idea was that the
philosophers and intellectuals going through the
library would see my book and would read it, and go,
oh, this is great stuff. And then they would turn
on the Roman broadband. They’d say to the patron, could
I have a copy of this, please? And he’d go, sure, I’ll get
the scribes to make you one and send it around
in the morning. And so the scribes
would all have to stay up all night
making this copy. But then it would
reach another library. And then people visiting that
library might do the same, saying, can I have
a copy of this? And as an Roman
author, you knew you’d succeeded if you went to the
bookseller street in Rome and you saw your book on sale
because the booksellers would only bother to make
copies of books they were being
asked for regularly. They would only
make them if they were sure they would
be able to sell. So as an author, I wouldn’t
make any money from this. But I would know that
my book had succeeded. And I would expect payback
in the form of patronage and a cushy job and
this sort of thing. The other thing
that was distributed socially by the Romans
was their newspaper. The Romans had the
first newspaper. It was founded by Julius Caesar
in 59 BC, which kind of makes him the founder of
my whole industry. And it’s called the “Acta
Diurna”– “diurna” meaning daily, the root of the word
journalism and journal. And the idea was that
the “Acta Diurna” would have a summary of the
most important speeches given the previous day in the
Senate and in the Peoples’ Assembly, the two houses
of the Roman system. And it would also have
births, marraiges, deaths and so because those were very
important in Roman politics. And this was put
up in the forum. So exactly one copy of
this newspaper was made. And essentially the state
said, look, we’ve produced it. It’s your job to distribute it. It was left to
the audience to do social distribution
of the newspaper. And the way they
would do it is they would go down and read the
bits they’re interested in and write them down. Or in fact, they would send
a scribe down to do it, if they were wealthy enough. And the scribe would sketch out
the bits of the newspaper that were relevant on a device that
also looks quite familiar. This is a Roman iPad. It’s exactly the size and
aspect ratio of an iPad. And as you can see, it’s
got scribbles on it. And this is how you would
read the news over breakfast if you were a Roman nobleman. So this is what they used to do. And then I could copy
the bits of the news that I thought were
relevant to my friends. And again, we see this
in Cicero’s letters and those of Pliny
the Elder and Tacitus. When they’re outside
Rome, they’ve got their friends sending
them highlights of the news to keep them informed,
and in some cases, entire copies of the news. Cicero asks one of
his friends to do this when he’s sent to be the
governor of what’s basically Syria now. And Caelius, his
friend, is so desperate not to leave
anything out that he has an entire copy of
the “Acta” made everyday. And Cicero quickly stops
him and says, look, this is oversharing. I don’t need the
gladiator results. I’m serious. That’s what he said. And he just wanted
the political news. And he wanted crucially
Caelius’ commentary on the political news
because he didn’t just want the raw information. He wanted his friend
to filter it for him. So the Romans were
distributing and filtering and copying news and other
documents for their friends. So this is a social
media ecosystem. The most effective use of the
system was the Apostle Paul. If you think about
Paul’s epistles to the various churches that
he’d founded around Asia Minor and Greece and
elsewhere, you can see that there’s social
distribution going on. So this is his letter
to the Colossians– “After this letter
has been read to you, see that it is also read in
the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read
the letter from Laodicea.” What the churches in his
network were doing was they were all
copying the letters that Paul wrote
them to each other. And he knew this was happening. And it had the beneficial effect
of binding them all together into this community
of churches that felt that they were
part of a wider network. Some of them were
being persecuted. Some of them were
having problems. There were doctrinal differences
that needed to be resolved. And Paul could just
write to one church where a particular argument
was taking place and say, you need to do this. And he could be confident
that his views would ripple to the other churches. And at the time, Paul’s
having an argument with other early members of the
Christian church, some of whom think that Christianity ought
to be open only to Jews. And Paul disagrees
with that and thinks it ought to be open to everyone. And his social media campaign
is so effective that he wins. And that shapes the
early Christian church. So it ends up shaping the way
that Christianity evolves. And in fact, still today when
you hear the Epistle– you go to church and you
hear the Epistle– that is the social
distribution that Paul started still going on today. Let’s jump forward a
bit to another example. I’ve many examples of
different social media ecosystems in the book. But I’m just going to look
at three quickly today. The second also involves the
church, the Catholic Church. This time they’re
on the receiving end of the social media
campaign, and launching it is that chap at the bottom
right who is Martin Luther. And the chap on the top
left is a pamphlet seller. And this is because Luther
wrote a series of pamphlets that took on doctrine
in the Catholic Church, in particular the doctrine
of indulgences, which is the “get out of
purgatory free” ticket. Well, they weren’t free. That was the problem. The church made people buy
these tickets to ensure that they and their relatives
would supposedly get out of purgatory more
quickly after they died. And Luther thought this
was straightforwardly a way of fleecing the poor to
pay for the construction of St. Peter’s in Rome, which
is exactly what it was. And so he wrote a
list of 95 reasons why he thought this was a bad
idea and invited people to a public debate. So if he’d done
it today, it would have been a Buzzfeed post
with 95 crazy reasons why the Pope is wrong
about indulgences. But it wasn’t a Buzzfeed post. It was 1518. So instead, he wrote it
in Latin, handwritten, and he pinned it to the door
of the church in Wittenberg where he was a theologian. And this was really hot stuff. So people stated copying
it down and sending it to their friends. So far, so Roman. This is bits of paper with
Latin on them flying around. Paper, not papyrus, but
essentially the same idea. However, in the intervening
period since the Romans, the printing press has appeared. So when printers get a
hold of this, and they go, wow, this is really
hot stuff, and they print a thousand copies of it,
it spreads a lot more quickly. And when those
printed copies reach other towns that also have
printing presses and people are making a fuss about
this, those printers realize there’s a market. And they print
another 1,000 copies, and they ripple somewhere else. And the net result is that
Martin Luther’s 95 theses, these 95 things that
he wanted to debate, spread throughout the whole
of Germany in two weeks and throughout the whole
of continental Europe in four weeks. So this is a description by
one of Luther’s contemporaries. This was a complete
surprise to Luther. He hadn’t expected this at all. He said the theses are
printed and circulated far beyond my expectation. But he realized that
this was an opportunity. He could use this system,
the fact that there seemed to be quite a lot of
sympathy for his views to the extent which people
would actually propagate them for him. So he responded. He followed up with
a series of pamphlets that were written not
in Latin, but in German because German was far
more easily understandable. And also, they were written in a
very deliberately simple German that didn’t use local
dialects or idioms. So they could be
understood throughout the German-speaking lands. And he produced a series
of these pamphlets. And they, like the 95
theses, spread very quickly on their own. All he had to do was give
the text to one printer, usually the printer
in his hometown. No money changes hands. That printer prints
1,000 copies. They go to the nearby towns. The printers there reprint
them, and so on and so on. And it ripples. Now these days, we measure the
effectiveness of a social media campaign looking at
the number of ripples, the number of +1s or re-tweets
or Likes or reblogs or repins or whatever. It turns out you can do
the same for Martin Luther. And if you look at his sort of
traffic stats, you get this. And this is the
number of pamphlets that had been
printed or reprinted in each year during the early
years of the Reformation. So start down there and
you can see in 1523, there’s this massive
traffic spike. And the blue is the
Latin pamphlets, and the red is the
German pamphlets. And the darker bits are
the number of new pamphlets by Luther. And the lighter
bits are the number of reprints of pamphlets. So you can see in
1523, it’s said to be 3/4– a bit
more– of the pamphlets, call it 350 reprints,
are going on there. And let’s assume they
had 1,000 copies each. That’s 350,000
just in that year. And actually, over the
whole of the first decade of the Reformation,
there’s about 5 to 7 million pamphlets
whizzing around in Europe. And they’re amazingly
accessible unlike a book. I mean, the Gutenberg
Bible, if you were going to buy that, it’s
like buying a very, very expensive car. It’s not something
everyone could afford. A pamphlet cost about
the same as a chicken. So it was a reasonable thing
for a literate working man, a blacksmith or
a weaver, to buy. And as a result, they did. And it was very often the
first printed document that they owned. And so the effect of this was to
spread Martin Luther’s message all around Europe. The Catholic Church was
pretty useless at responding. The Pope said, they
don’t have to respond because I’m infallible. So why bother? Which is pretty much
what large companies said when bloggers
were rude about them five or six years ago. They were, well, why do we
care about some stupid blogger? But then when the blogger
starts to gain traction, you realize you need to respond. But then you need to do
a good job of responding. And the Pope didn’t do a
very good job of responding. He asked the bishops to
respond on his behalf. And they responded in Latin,
where almost no one would read them, and with an
argument that Luther had to be wrong because
the Pope is infallible. And this was not a very
convincing argument even when translated
later into German. And so Martin Luther
basically had the best of it. And the result was
that the church split. And this was the result
of his canny recognition of the power of
social distribution. Let’s jump forward again,
now to the 17th century. This is one of my
favorite examples. I’ve touched on this
in a previous book about the history of drinking. This is a coffeehouse. And the coffeehouses in England
were fantastically alluring social media environments. So you can see all these
chaps with their hats on and their wigs
in a coffeehouse. And there are lots of
documents on the table. This is because a
coffeehouse is where you went to read
stuff and discuss it. And sometimes the
discussions got a bit heated, which is why the
guy in the middle is throwing his coffee over the
person on the left whose hat is coming off. But that wasn’t how you
were supposed to do it. What you were supposed to
do is go to the coffeehouse and read all the
stuff that they had, which would be news
books and pamphlets and handwritten
newsletters and broadsides and all sorts of things like
that, all the stuff that came out. And coffeehouses were
very often specialists in particular subjects. So there might be one where
the scientists went to, and one where the
sailors went to, and one where the
marine insurers went to, and one where the priests
went to, and so on. So you have to sort of
filter this massive load of information by going
to the right coffeehouse. And you’d find the
right kind of people. And you could join
that social network and discuss stuff with them. But there was this
rule that coffeehouses forced the patrons
who attended them to leave class
distinctions at the door. And this meant that,
in theory, at least, “gentleman, mechanic, lord,
and scoundrel” could mix. And this was,
actually, a new thing. It meant that ideas could
pass from one social group to another in ways
that they maybe couldn’t have done before. And so you have all of these
unexpected collisions of ideas and of people taking
place in coffeehouses. Now this is
fantastically exciting. If you look at the
diary of Samuel Pepys, he’s often saying thanks
to the coffeehouse. And the reason he liked going
there, well, you then see. He describes the
amazing things he learned when we went
to the coffeehouse. He met a merchant who’d
been to the South Seas and had seen that
some of the people there had learned to write
with their feet just as well as with their hands. Or he learned that there was
an amazing new fruit called pineapple. So this was a very
alluring environment because you never knew
who you might meet or what you might find out. And people would go there for
hours and just sort of while away the time reading stuff
and talking to people. And then if they
wanted to respond, they might write a pamphlet. And then they knew
which coffeehouses to leave it in because
they specialized in different subjects. So this sounds very
familiar to us today. Some people actually
complained that coffeehouses were too alluring,
luring people away from more constructive things
that they might be doing, which again is quite a
modern criticism, which we’ll return to in a minute. Anyway, so those
are three examples. There’s a bunch more
of them in the book. This is a commonplace book. Commonplace books are quite
interesting because they were books where you wrote
down cool stuff so you could get to it later. And it was usually cool
stuff by other people. It might be by you. But a lot of the time
it would be a new sonnet that you’d heard, maybe a
friend had sent you a letter, or it might be an aphorism,
or a quote from the classics, or a good quote from a play,
or really good put-down. And you would put all of this
stuff in your commonplace book because the act
of writing it down would make it easier
to remember it, and you could also
retrieve it later. And this is, I think,
very similar to the way that people use things like
Tumblr and Pinterest today. Because commonplace books were
a means of self-expression. If I swap commonplace
books with you, we might copy bits out
that we thought were cool. But the stuff that I chose
to put in my commonplace book or chose to pass on to
other people by post so that they could put in
their commonplace books was a form of self-expression. This is what we see in
Tumblr and Pinterest. They are forms of
self-expression and self-definition based
around the curation mostly of other people’s content. So 80% of the stuff on
Tumblr and on Pinterest is repinnings or reblogs
of other people’s stuff. And that doesn’t
mean it’s any less of a medium of
self-expression than launching your own blog where
all of it’s by you. So I think there’s an
interesting parallel there. And then there’s
a bunch of others. There’s the poetry that was
passed around the Tudor court, the pamphlets around the time
of the English Civil War, and in the run-up to the
American War of Independence, as we call it on our
side of the pond, and the French Revolution
a century later. All of these had social media
environments surrounding them which I go into. So what happened? If it’s the case that
social media’s been around for 2,000 years, why have
we failed to notice this? And essentially
what happened was that this peer-to-peer,
horizontal transmission, two-way conversational
system was replaced in the 19th
century by this. And this was because a series
of machines were invented. First was the steam
press and then the radio and the
TV transmitter. And they allowed
people, provided they had access
to these machines, to send a message
very, very efficiently to a very large audience. And this hadn’t been
possible before. And so we see, for
example, newspapers go from having a
circulation of about 1,000 on average in the US at the
beginning of the 19th century, being very, very local,
little publications where a lot of the
stuff that’s in them is actually written by
members of the local community just sending in
letters and things. Here’s the speech I gave
and that sort of thing. So they were very much
sort of social platforms. By the end of the 19th century,
you have newspapers in the US. You have several with a
circulation of a million copies a day, and that’s a
very different world. They’re written by professional
journalists whose job is just to write stuff to go in
the paper to sell papers. Similarly, with
radio and TV, you can reach millions of people. But it’s a one-way channel
that hardly anyone has access to in the grand
scheme of things. And probably the most
infamous example is this. This is the Volksempfanger. So you’ve heard of the
Volkswagen, the people’s car. Well, the Nazis also
made the people’s radio, people’s receiver,
which was this. And “Ganz Deutschland
Hurt Den Fuhrer,” which means the whole of
Germany hears the Fuhrer. And you can see that this
radio is symbolically in this poster binding
together all of the people and imposing upon them the view
of one man, the vision of one man, Adolf Hitler. And this is as far away from
social media as you can get. This is not a conversation. And moreover, the
Volksempfanger was designed so that it could only
pick up domestic broadcasts. You couldn’t pick
up any other points of view except what the German
government was putting out. So this is actually the
antithesis of social media and sort of as far
as the pendant’s swung in the other
direction towards tyranny. But now, social media is
back, thanks to the internet. Because essentially,
if you look at it in a sort of historical
context, the internet means that you can deliver
a message very cheaply to a large number of people. And it can actually take on the
power of broadcast distribution in a way that wasn’t
previously possible. So social systems were
overshadowed by broadcast and by steam printing and so on. But now, they’ve been
able to fight back. And actually we see stuff that
becomes popular and becomes famous not because a broadcaster
has decided to show it or because a newspaper
editor thinks it’s important, but just because enough
people on the internet think it’s funny or think it’s
relevant or think it’s cool. So something like Gangnam style
or the woman the other day who resigned from her job
and videoed herself dancing around the office and that went
nuts, these sorts of things that you don’t need the
endorsement of a large media organization to make
a splash anymore. And essentially, that’s the
re-democratization of media that the internet
has made possible. So I think we need to look
at the history of media in a slightly different way. We’re used to this
sort of framing where we had “old” media
that was analog and one-way and was sort of print
and broadcast, basically. And then we have
“new” media, which was digital and was two-way,
and we could be more social. And that’s only
part of the picture. I think we actually should
look at it like this. And we need to think about the
period of “really old” media, which dominated much of
the past 2,000 years. And “old” media was really
a very recent thing. I’ve dated it starting
at 1833 here, which is the year of the first
penny-press newspaper. It was founded in New
York, the “New York Sun.” And that was really the
beginning of the mass media model because the
newspaper was priced to sell at a penny instead
of sixpence, or $0.06. And most of the revenue
actually came from advertising. So it was based on
a large circulation, advertiser-funded model. Well, that worked
fine until about 2007 when the newspaper industry
peaked at 87% of its revenue from advertising. And it’s clearly been in very
swift decline since then. So I think this way
of looking at things shows us that “old”
media was sort of a phase we went through. And that “new” media
and “really old” media have quite a lot in
common with each other. And if that’s the case, then
these ancient social media systems have lessons
for us today. So let’s just quickly
look at three of them from each of those examples
that I had early on. So here’s the first one. Is social media a dangerous
distraction that wastes time? This is the idea that instead
of calling it social networking, it should more accurately by
called social not-working. And this is quite
a common criticism, or at least it was sort
of a few years ago, that you must ban
Facebook in the workplace. Otherwise no one will
get anything done. Definitely ban YouTube
or people will just spend all day watching kittens. And this turns out to
be a pretty– well, apart from the kittens–
a pretty old criticism. So if you look at what people
said about coffeehouses in the 1670s in Oxford,
there was great concern that students were
spending all of their time in the coffeehouses. And this was going to lead to,
essentially, the ruin of Great Britain because all of our next
generation of great thinkers were going to be just addling
their brains with coffee and sharing information
in coffeehouses. And this was a similar
complaint in Cambridge, hours spent in talking and
less profitable reading of newspapers. And this was a pamphlet from
1673 criticizing coffeehouses and ironically distributed
in coffeehouses, saying that they were
“great enemies to diligence and industry” and the ruin
of “serious and hopeful young gentlemen.” So this was, I think, quite a
familiar-sounding complaint. But actually, if you look at
what came out of coffeehouses, it turned out to be
completely wrong. They weren’t enemies of
diligence and industry. They were actually
crucibles of innovation. If you look at the
coffeehouse culture, there’s an amazingly fertile,
intellectual environment because it allowed people
and ideas to mix in ways they previously hadn’t. And look at what came out
of the late 17th century coffeehouses, things like
the financial revolution. So Jonathan’s
Coffeehouse, where people when to discuss share
prices and to make deals turns into the London
Stock Exchange. Lloyd’s Coffeehouse
turns into Lloyd’s of London, the first
insurance market. People used to go
there to meet– and they used to rent
specific tables– to discuss marine insurance. And my favorite example,
the Royal Society grows out of
coffeehouse discussions by great scientists in
Oxford and then later in London as well. And they used to go to
the Rainbow Coffeehouse. And Isaac Newton actually
writes “Principia Mathematica” in order to settle a coffeehouse
argument between Hooke, Halley, and Wren. So people are prepared to
say things in coffeehouses that maybe they wouldn’t in
more formal circumstances. And imagine trying ideas out
and taking them for a walk, and discuss them. I think there’s a lesson
for us there today. Forward-looking
companies are trying to work out how to recreate
the spirit of the coffeehouse internally. Sometimes that’s
physically, and they kind of coffee bars into their
campuses or their offices. And sometimes it’s through the
use of internal social media to encourage collaboration
and innovation. And then there’s
the question of how you extend that to your partners
and your customers and so on. But I think the
lesson of history is that social media
isn’t just a distraction. It’s actually an amazingly
powerful tool for collaboration if you use it correctly. Next, what’s the role of
social media in revolutions? Again, a very popular subject
because of the Arab Spring. And it turns out we
can ask Martin Luther. Martin Luther says that “from
the rapid spread of the theses, I gather what the greater
part of the nation thinks of indulgences.” So the fact that his
message spread so quickly without him having
to do anything told him that people supported
him and told the people who were doing the distribution that
people supported him as well. And this is what
modern media scholars call synchronization of opinion. It’s where people who
are under a regime that they don’t like but aren’t
sure how many other people feel the same way figure out how
many people feel the same way through the sharing of media. And that was done
in the Arab Spring by Wael Ghonim’s page
of– what was it– “We Are All Khaled Saeed”
and that sort of thing. When [INAUDIBLE] 1,000 Likes in
an hour and is then taken down, you know that there’s a lot of
people who feel the same way. And that’s what we also saw with
the spread of videos in Tunisia on YouTube as a sign of protest
following Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation. So it’s a very
similar model, which is that people are
able to work out that other people feel
the same way as them. In Martin Luther’s case, if
I was living in the 1520s and I went to the printer
in my village and said, I hear there’s a
new Martin Luther. Have you got a copy? And the printer says,
well, I had some yesterday, but they’ve all gone. Then I knew that lots of
other people in my village would be feeling the same
way as me, even if I’ve never spoken to them about it. And so it’s this
synchronization of opinion that I think is important. And in fact, Jared Cohen,
another Googler, has, I think, put his finger on the
right way to think about this, which is that
social media doesn’t spark. It doesn’t cause the fire. But it helps it spread much more
quickly once it starts moving. It’s an accelerant. And I think that’s exactly the
right way to think about it. Finally, is social media a fad? I think if we go back
to this diagram here, you can see that the
anomaly is actually the “old” media, the mass media
period, the industrial media period, the period where
the technology needed to spread a message
widely happened to be expensive and
subject to things like bandwidth limitations. And the internet does
away with all of that. So that looks like the anomaly. Social media isn’t a fad. It’s the mass-media
era that looks like the anomaly in
world historical terms. And that means that we,
social media users today, are heirs to a
centuries-long tradition. There are these
very nice parallels between old forms of social
media and modern ones. that I hope will change the way
you think about social media next time you log onto your
social network of choice. And I hope you’ll believe
me and my contention that social media doesn’t just
join us to each other today. It also links us to the past. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] TOM STANDAGE: Oh,
and there’s the book, which I think you
all have a copy of. AUDIENCE: Right. PRESENTER: Questions? AUDIENCE: What about
social media like Reddit? Do you see an equivalent to
that now with previous things? Would that be closest
to a common book? TOM STANDAGE: I think
both Reddit and something like the Huffington Post are
examples of social news, which is kind of the
analogy I’ve drawn there is with the Roman system. So what Reddit does
is it essentially allows you to say, oh, god,
there’s so much stuff out there that I need help filtering it. And if you look at the history
of information more broadly, every time there’s a
publishing technology that makes more stuff available,
people feel overwhelmed, and you get complaints
about information overload And then they
respond by inventing things that help them
do filtering better. So the classic example
in the case of books was they invent things like book
reviews and literature reviews and bibliographies and table
of contents and indices. And that enables you to find
the stuff that’s relevant to you without having to read all
the books in the world, which is plainly impossible. And on the internet, we’ve
gone through the same thing with we had Yahoo that
had a directory model. And then we had Google that
did a pure search model. And then we had sort of
social things like Twitter. And now we’re seeing this hybrid
social search thing emerging. But what it’s doing
in each case is trying to help us find
the relevant stuff. Reddit I put in that
category as well. Essentially, this is what
the Romans were doing, too. They were saying, look, I can’t
figure out what’s important. So I’m going to use my
friends to work it out for me. And I’m going to trust what
they say because I trust them. And I also want to hear
what their commentary on these things is. And then I’ll put
all that together. I actually did a piece
on this, funny enough for the Huffington Post,
where I said, sorry, Arianna, but Julius Caesar got
there way, way before you. And that we think that
things at HuffPo and Reddit are– or using Twitter in
this way– are very new. But actually that’s exactly
what the Romans were doing. AUDIENCE: So roughly speaking,
the mass media anomaly corresponds to the time when
people who generate content get paid for it directly. TOM STANDAGE: Yeah, it’s
a commercial thing, yeah. Because the big
machines that spread it are expensive to maintain. And so you need to
have some model. And that means having
advertisers fund it. And then you have to have
incentives for the journalists. And you only get
paid journalists in that period, really,
for the first time as well. AUDIENCE: Do you see that that’s
going to go away going forward? TOM STANDAGE: I don’t think
it’s going to go away completely because I don’t think mass media
is going to go away completely. We are going into a
hybrid world where things like reality TV and sport
make most sense to distribute those through broadcast. But we already see the
stuff that people time shift and the stuff that people don’t. And we see Twitter sort of
piling on to the live TV stuff as the most
promising business model. So I think there are going
to be some things that where broadcast still makes sense. But that said, I
think there are going to be a lot fewer of them. And I think no one knows these
industries are [? living. ?] And I think it’s quite
funny that journalists are used to writing about
the decline of the car-maker or the decline of
the steam engine. But when it happens to their
industry, they say, oh, no. No, this is terrible. And we need the
government to intervene. There’s some
God-given right they have to have the industry
the size that it is. The music industry
has got smaller, but is growing again now. The newspaper industry is
going to get a lot smaller. I’m pretty sure of it. I think the crucial thing
for all of these industries, if they want to stay
alive as industries, is they need to find a way
to make sharing their friend. And we see that music
has gone through that. Music has figured out that you
basically give away the music or charge very little for it. When I pay iTunes for
something on iTunes, I’m not really
paying for the music. I’m paying for the
convenience of not having to go onto BitTorrent. It’s really a
convenience of delivery. And then Spotify has essentially
this convenience mobile premium model. So you make the money
elsewhere, which is just what the
Roman authors did. They didn’t make money
from the content. They made it elsewhere. And we see that some
industries have figured out how to do this. The movie industry doesn’t. The movie industry is saying
there must be a model that allows us to go on making a
quarter of a billion dollar {blockbuster.} But there isn’t. And I don’t think
the world will mourn when these stupid–
I mean, they’re just getting sillier and
sillier, I would say. So actually, going
back to a world of much simpler
and cheaper films that are maybe funded through
Kickstarter or something, I don’t think that would
be a terrible thing. The most interesting
example, I think, is video games where
the Asian video game model is particularly
clever because you basically give away the client software. You encourage people to share
it with their friends as much as possible, and put
it on BitTorrent, and all that kind of thing. It allows you to play this
massively multiplayer online role-playing game free. And so you get a big community
of people playing this game. And then you sell
them in-game upgrades. And that’s the bit
they can’t actually share with their friends. So that is a model which
makes sharing work for you as an industry. And I think that’s the challenge
that industries all face now. This is going to happen. How do you make it your
friend and not your enemy? And how do you just go
beyond sticking your head in the ground and pretending
it’s going to go away? And we saw the music
industry go through that. And I think they’re
out of it now. It’s sometimes hard to tell. Movies are still fairly
head-in-the-sand about these things. The newspaper industry is
totally head-in-the sand. You go to the sort of events
that I sometimes go to and people are sort
of saying, where is the model we find
that will allow things to go on the way
they were before? And that just ain’t
going to work, guys. That’s what the
steam industry said. So I think that’s
the challenge– make this your friend. One of the things
that’s my responsibility to do at “The
Economist” is use this. And we see social sharing of
our content as an extremely valuable way to reach the
people out there who we think ought to be “Economist”
subscribers but aren’t because they think all we
do is write about economics. And our biggest
challenge is actually overcoming that preconception
that people have. And when we help people
over that, and they go, oh, wow, this is
actually pretty cool, then we can pick up
more subscribers. So for us, social is an
amazingly powerful way of reaching out to
those people, not least because the people who like
reading our stuff already love to share it
with their friends because they can
go, hey, look at me, I’m reading “The Economist.” So it’s a bad plan that
works really nicely. AUDIENCE: I was going to probe
a little bit on your three points at the end there. It’s the first time I’ve heard
the “Principia Mathematica” credited to a
coffeehouse, especially. So what’s the equivalent? What’s the “Principia
Mathematica” on Facebook? Let’s just speculate. TOM STANDAGE: I think Twitter
is probably more likely. The way that Twitter works
is very coffeehouse-like. So if I follow two people,
even if they’re actually two celebrities I don’t know,
and they tweet each other, I can see those
tweets in my timeline. And then I can hit Reply
and reply to both of them. And they may choose
to ignore me. But they may not. And this is kind of one of
the fun things about Twitter. If you do this at
a drinks party, people might think
it’s annoying, that you’re eavesdropping
and then butting in. But in coffeehouses, it
was actually encouraged. This is what you
were meant to do. People had to be polite. And if someone
stuck their nose in, you couldn’t just
say, oh, go away. You had to be nice to them. So there’s some quite
interesting stuff. There was a project,
for example, to build a computational
model of the C. elegans work. And it started with a tweet. So there were bunches of
scientists talking about it. And one of them said, oh,
why don’t we just do this? And so they started doing it. We’re right at the
beginning of this process. But that’s the kind of thing
that’s going to happen, that people are
going to encounter ideas and people and potential
projects in public on Twitter. And some of those are
actually going to happen. If I go back to “Principia
Mathematica,” what actually happened there was that there
was a series of discussions called coffeehouse
discussions that took place in the evenings of
January 1660 something. And it was Hooke,
Halley, and Wren. And they were arguing about
whether an inverse square of the law of gravity implicitly
gave you elliptical orbits. And we now know that it does. But they no one had a proof. And Hooke, in typical
Hooke fashion, said, well, I did have a
proof, but I can’t find it. And to be honest,
the thing about Hooke is that he claimed to have
invented everything first. But very often, he really had. But in this case,
he couldn’t find it. And Halley was also
involved in this. And I think Halley offered Hooke
and Wren a very expensive book if either of them
could prove this. And neither of them could. And then Halley went and saw
Newton and mentioned it to him. And Newton said, oh, yeah,
yeah, inverse square of law of two ellipses. Yeah, yeah, totally,
I’ve got that. I’ll send you it next week. So Newton starts writing
it out to send to Halley. And then he gets a bit
carried away and writes the whole “Principia
Mathematica.” So that was how it happened,
that they were prepared to sort of dare each
other to do things. And you wouldn’t
necessarily do that on the floor of
the Royal Society or in the pages of a
scientific journal. But you would do it
in a coffeehouse. AUDIENCE: I had a
question about, like, what about other ancient
civilizations that had postal systems? Why didn’t they develop
the same way as the Romans? TOM STANDAGE: Well,
I should say they may have done in some cases. So I have limited my
scope here to the West because I didn’t
feel like I could see into the literature of
other cultures and civilizations properly. And so I didn’t want to kind
of generalize about them. But I have found a few examples. The interesting ones are
from China and Japan. So China, there do seem to
have been kind of social media systems, but they seemed to
be terribly hierarchical. So what happened was that the
local governors would gather. They would do things like
listen to the songs people were singing, a bit like sort of
sentiment analysis on Twitter. And they would write these
down and then send them up to the regional governors,
and they would send them up. So there was this sort of
very hierarchical system going on there. But the thing is
that may just be me imposing that sort of frame
on the way we think of China as always being very
top-down hierarchical. The thing that’s clearly more
social is the Japanese example. There are a couple of cases
in the 10th and 11th century of traditions of social poetry. And one of them is the sort of
batting backwards and forwards, being expected to write poems
at the drop of a hat in poetry writing competitions. And the most famous ones
would be sort of passed around and become famous. And people would write them
in their commonplace books. And in fact, “The Pillow Book,”
which is, in effect, a diary commonplace book, has
a very nice line in it where it’s about how lovely
it is when one of your poems goes viral in the court. And poor old Sie Shonagon is
saying that this has never happened to her, but it
must be really awesome when it happens to you. And there was also a
custom from social poetry where people would
write a line or verse and pass it on to
the next person. And so it was sort of a
collaborative poetry-writing exercise. And again, that looks quite
similar to some of the things we have today. And what I’m hoping
will happen is the publication of this book
will flush out some more non-European
examples, and I’ll be able to add them to
a future edition. So let me know if you have any. AUDIENCE: So you
describe the entire range of those 2,000 years
between the Romans and the coffeehouses
as kind of one block. But it seems like
the Middle Ages would be kind of an
exception where you really did have a hierarchical
transfer of information along the feudal lines. Would that be kind
of more comparable to what we saw in “old” media? TOM STANDAGE: Yeah, you do
have sort of quasi-broadcast there because the king can
say to his barons, say this. And then they would
sort of once a month have courts where they’d
read out proclamations. And then you also
have pseudo-broadcast from the Catholic Church
because the Pope could say to all of the bishops,
tell the priests to say that Martin Luther
is really, really bad and no one should believe him. And so they would get up
in the pulpit and say, Martin Luther is
really, really bad, and no one should believe him. But it didn’t have
the same kind of power to reach large numbers
of people simultaneously. It wasn’t that quick. It wasn’t that reliable. So it doesn’t have
the subsequent power of a radio in your
room saying, this is what you should
believe, whatever. So, yeah, you can
sort of liken– AUDIENCE: You said “new” media
versus “really old” media, the “new” media has more power
than the “really old” media. TOM STANDAGE: Right. Exactly. So a more nuanced
version of my thesis would be, instead
of being all social, all broadcast, or all social–
which isn’t true anyway, because I think we’ve got
an awesome hybrid now. But essentially you’ve got a
social trumps broadcast period. Then you’ve got a broadcast
trumps social period. And then you got a
social fights back period, which we’re in now. And so, yes, it’s not
completely black and white. The first order of approximation
is the black-and-white version. AUDIENCE: When do we flip back? What forces us back? What forces broadcast kind
of back onto our society? And how long do we have? TOM STANDAGE: Well, I
think, actually, some people say that there are aspects
of social that are broadcast. So the way Lady Gaga uses
Twitter is actually broadcast, not social. So again, I think what
we’ve we’re really talking about now is a hybrid. And the challenge
for us as a society and for us as companies and
individuals and consumers is to sort of get the best
of both of those aspects. We want the video frames
of the football game to arrive in a timely
and in-order fashion. And distributed systems
are not necessarily as good at doing that. If you look at
Usenet, for example, which was a distributed,
open-standards-based social media system, you
could check in twice a day, but you really couldn’t hold
a real-time conversation like you can on Twitter. I would be very
interested to see whether we see the rise of
open-standards-based social media and social
networking platforms. Because, to be
honest, the dominance of Facebook and Twitter
in that field does look like an anomaly. It looks like CompuServe and
AOL before the web showed up. But it may be that there is
such enormous technologies to centralizing it that they
would be hard to overthrow. But that was why I
thought [INAUDIBLE]. AUDIENCE: So you’ve mentioned
Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Blogger a lot. You haven’t really talked
much about Facebook. So I’m curious, what is it
about Facebook that makes it less like some of these
historical things? And why is it less interesting? TOM STANDAGE: No, that’s true. A couple of reasons. I mean, Facebook does appear. And there are some things
that are Facebook-ish. But I think it’s chiefly that
Facebook, although they keep taking down any
constraints, any privacy, any sort of limiting
this to certain people, essentially the default is
still not that everything on it is public. So the closest
analogy to Facebook are actually where you
have social media exchanges between closed groups of people. And the one example in
the book is the members of the court around Anne Boleyn. And they had this book called
“The Devonshire Manuscript.” And it was a shared
commonplace book where they all wrote poems in. And they would
rewrite them, too. They might take a poem
someone else had written and rewrite it to reflect
their own circumstance. And they were flirting
with each other, and dropping hints
about what was going on, and writing comments
in the columns. And it’s all quite
hard to figure out now, like my daughter’s Tumblr
would be to a future historian. So that’s one example
because it’s a closed system. And there’s another
one in the Roman world where members of
a shared apartment block, they have this
literally writing on the wall. They’re writing poetry
and witty remarks on the wall of an
apartment block that has some shared space. And they tried to
outdo each other. And it reads very much like
a Facebook comment thread. I’m personally most
drawn to Twitter because it mostly spoke
to me as a journalist. But also I just
like the simplicity of the basically
everything is public model, and there’s no mucking around. And I can’t be bothered
with the Facebook. This is going to go to
friends and networks, because even if you
figure out how to use it, they’ll change it next week. And with Google+, I just
make everything public because, again, I can’t really
be bothered to play that game. There are fewer examples of
those sort of selective closed group things in
the internet world. So that makes Facebook
less exciting to me. All right. I think I have one more here. And then it’s going
to be time to stop. AUDIENCE: You hinted towards
the tension in the sense that centralization was
the key broadcast feature. But it hasn’t yet gone away
from any of the dominant– so, I mean, Facebook
does get to the– TOM STANDAGE: It does. It really does. [INTERPOSING VOICES] AUDIENCE: And I guess
just an invitation to reflect a little bit
more on that in terms of are there historical–
there wasn’t a single place where you could flip the switch
and turn off all the printing presses. TOM STANDAGE: No, there weren’t. So I think printing presses
are a lot more like setting up your own web server. If you don’t want to use
WordPress or someone else’s Blogger or whatever, you
can set up your own server and plug it into the
internet and it’ll work. And it’s the same with email. If you don’t want to
use Gmail or whoever, then you can set up your own
mail server and plug it in and it’ll work. And I think it is an anomaly. This is where the
book actually ends. I say, it looks
pretty weird that we treat Facebook and
Twitter as though they’re public spaces and
public spheres. And they’re not. They’re privately owned. They’re much more like
malls than marketplaces. If they don’t like you,
they can shut you out. And they do. And they seem to do this in
sometimes a rather capricious way. So I think the historical
analogy on a much shorter scale is the AOL/CompuServe one,
where it looked impregnable in whatever it was– 1993– and
the internet was everywhere, and they were who you
went to get to it. And the open web back
then was really crap. You couldn’t do web-based chat. There’s a whole bunch of
stuff it just couldn’t do. And some people said, oh, in
the long run, it’ll get better. Of course, it did. But it really did
take quite a while before things that were quite
easy to do in CompuServe now became possible on the web. It took about 10 years. So one of the things I’m
particularly interested in is these various
efforts– tent.io is the most recent
one I thought was quite interesting–
but basically, these various efforts
to do open standards based social networking
and social media exchange. And I think the most likely
nucleation point for this is actually someone
like Dropbox. So what would happen if– or
you could do it with iCloud or you could do it
with Google Drive. But essentially you would
have a repository of stuff. And you would specify–
and initially would just work a bit like HootSuite. So you’ve got cool stuff in it. And you’d say, and send this to
Facebook, send this to Twitter, and send this to Instagram. And it would just
do it all for you. So it would just talk
to those open APIs. But of course, once
you got that going, you then have
something big enough that the individual
repositories could talk to each other
using an open standard. So if you were a big company
like Google or Apple, you could say, OK, we’re going
to allow these repositories to talk openly to each other but
in an open-standards-based way. And then, when I get really
annoyed with Facebook and say, OK, I’ve
had it with Facebook, I’m shutting down
my Facebook account, so I break the link between
my repository and Facebook. And I delete all of my
stuff from Facebook. But I still got it all. It’s all still in my repository. And then you’ve got the basis of
a thing that doesn’t require– then you bootstrap it
using these other networks. You’d probably hate
it and block it. But that would be how you do it. It’s kind of hard to see how
you get this going, though. On the one hand, the
existing social networks make it easier to switch. So if you look at what happened
with Friendster and MySpace, in both cases, the
existence of those networks allowed the people
who were defecting to tell their friends that
they were defecting far more efficiently. So you just post a
message on MySpace saying, I’ve had it with MySpace. I’m out of here. Meet me on Facebook. And then everyone
will look at Facebook. So on the one hand, you can
say it’s very, very brittle. And if something like
this comes along, I can just go onto
Twitter and Facebook and go, bye, find me over here. On the other hand, the reason
that Facebook and Twitter are useful is that I already
have established networks on them. And if I can’t transfer
those over, [INAUDIBLE]. So I can’t decide which of
those forces is stronger. But I think the
most likely scenario is that we see an emerging
open standard like this that pops up. Some start-up does it. It becomes cool to use that. app.net isn’t really very
cool, but never mind. So like app.net, only cool. And then that starts
to get some traction. And then if that is coupled with
a catastrophic privacy breach– let’s say, Facebook–
then you might get people like my mum saying,
what do I do? Actually, saying my mum, my
mum’s a pretty high bar there, but you might start to get
sort of a larger migration. So that’s the kind
of thing I’m looking for in the next 10 to 15 years,
and I’m following very closely. And I think it’s also something
I need to write a piece on. I think it’s a genuinely
interesting computer science problem of how you do just
something like Twitter, where you do in order timely
status updates in an open way. Is that actually possible? Where are the bottlenecks? How would you scale that? There are lots of people
thinking about this. And I think that’s a
genuinely big problem. And it looks insoluble. But then self-driving cars
looked insoluble 10 years ago. And then the next
year they were sold. So who knows? Great. PRESENTER: Thank you. TOM STANDAGE: Well,
thank you all very much. [APPLAUSE]

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