On Political Books

November/ December 2013 Scribimus Indocti Doctique Poemata Passim*

How the Romans invented Facebook, sort of.

By Justin Peters

Writing on the Wall: Social Media—The First 2,000 Years
by Tom Standage
Bloomsbury, 278 pp.


About three or four times a month, social media makes me hate my life. If you’ve ever spent any time at all on social media, you probably know what I mean: You go to bed realizing that you somehow wasted seven hours of your day commenting on Facebook photos of people you don’t even like, or trading insipid jokes with strangers over Twitter. Then you massage your temples, realize that your parents already had two kids and a house when they were your age, and think “This is the future?”

Not only is social media the future, writes the Economist’s Tom Standage, it’s also the past. In his clever new book, Writing on the Wall: Social Media—The First 2,000 Years, Standage argues that today’s prominent social platforms are but the latest iterations of phenomena that have endured since the days of Caesar, and that modern users of Twitter and Pinterest are “the unwitting heirs of a rich tradition with surprisingly deep historical roots.” “What if the ancient Romans had been on Facebook?” sounds like the beginning to an odd comedy routine, or an essay question from a history class at an unaccredited college. But Standage argues that it’s not at all silly to imagine the Julio-Claudians on Facebook, because, in a way, they were on Facebook—and so were Saint Paul of Tarsus, Thomas Paine, Martin Luther, and the inventor of the flush toilet, for good measure.

I know. I rolled my eyes, too. But this is actually less of a stretch than you might think. Standage defines social media as “an environment in which information was passed from one person to another along social connections, to create a distributed discussion or community.” Those informal networks flourished for centuries as society’s main sources of information and commentary, before mass media emerged to turn news into a one-way conversation. Standage argues that modern mass media was a 200-year aberration: a function of the high production costs associated with large printing presses and broadcast machinery. The rise of the Internet made everyone a potential publisher, and, thus, media reverted to its natural, social state. Everything old is new again.

With that as his thesis, Standage traces the rise of social media systems throughout history, finding interesting parallels hither and yon. The European coffeehouses of the seventeenth century were social networks of a sort, Standage argues, offering spaces for the easy, informal dissemination of news and conversation, and allowing like-minded people to coalesce into interest groups. Sixteenth-century wits like Sir John Harington, widely known as Elizabeth’s “saucy godson,” won fame by composing clever epigrams used for social commentary and self-promotion, much like today’s Twitter users. (Harington is better known today for designing what might have been the world’s first “water closet.”) Martin Luther’s 95 Theses started off tacked to the door of a church, but they soon begat countless responses from Luther’s friends and foes across Christendom—or, as Standage has it, they “went viral.”

Standage argues that the unanticipated groundswell of support for Luther’s points has much in common with how causes can become suddenly popular on modern social media platforms, their points amplified and adopted beyond the original author’s expectations. “Luther,” writes Standage, “had unwittingly revealed the power of a decentralized, person-to-person media system whose participants took care of distribution, deciding collectively which messages to amplify through sharing, recommendation, and copying.” Martin Luther’s theses, in this sense, were but an early antecedent of the Kony 2012 campaign, and the surprisingly successful Facebook effort to revive Betty White’s career.

Standage, the digital editor of the Economist, has written a stack of entertaining and uncommonly articulate books centered around these sorts of historical analogies. 1998’s The Victorian Internet explored the similarities between the Internet and the telegraph system. In 2002 came The Turk, about the eighteenth century’s preeminent chess-playing robot, which helped contextualize modern anxieties over the rise of artificial intelligence. Then came others. Standage never seems to take his analogies too seriously, which is to his credit, because while the comparisons are always thought-provoking, they are sometimes a bit facile. And, indeed, there are points where Writing on the Wall seems unbearably glib.

For example: Standage is very fond of asserting how ancient phenomena might look to those of us alive today. “To modern eyes, the chaotic and adversarial media environment of the 1640s has much in common with the Internet’s blogging culture,” he writes. “To modern eyes these tablets, with their flat writing surfaces surrounded by a wooden frame, look strikingly similar to tablet computers.” Well, I suppose if you’re looking for similarities between the primitive wax tablets used for correspondence by the Roman elite and the iPad, you can find them. But how similar are they, really, aside from their rectangular shape? The iPad is a commercial product from a multibillion-dollar corporation, marketed to middle-class consumers who use it to send messages, take photos, play games, compose marketing presentations, watch episodes of MasterChef, wake themselves up in the morning, and myriad other purposes. A wax tablet is a wax tablet.

Things that appear similar from a distance gradually reveal their differences on closer examination, and the more you think about some of Standage’s analogies, the keener the differences become. I quite liked the section about how the residents of ancient Rome would scribble messages on city walls—hotel reviews, sexual boasts, political endorsements—but I’m not entirely convinced that those messages actually constitute some sort of antediluvian Facebook wall. It certainly seems that, like today’s social platforms, Roman walls offered relatively unmediated spaces in which residents could interact, with nobody to direct the conversations or guide them toward productive ends. But there is a significant difference between messages that exist in a fixed physical space and those that exist only in digital form. A different format means a different user experience, and Standage’s failure to substantively address these differences makes it hard to actually gauge the value of the comparison.

Similarly, I question whether Martin Luther’s experiences are all that relevant to our understanding of modern viral content. Yes, the speed with which Luther’s arguments spread somewhat resembles the way that modern causes can find huge support in a small amount of time. But isn’t the difference that something actually came of the 95 Theses? Luther fractured Christendom. He sparked the Reformation. Modern social campaigns come and go in days, as flighty Tweeters move on to the next big cause or petition, or simply turn their attention to hot new photos of dogs wearing hats. That’s not to say that Twitter and Facebook and the rest could never be used to galvanize significant social change. It’s just that today’s social media platforms are so much busier and broader than those in Luther’s era that it’s hard to attempt any sort of direct or useful comparison. If Luther had issued the 95 Theses today, they would be forced to compete for attention with lists of 95 Great Places to Eat in Wittenberg; which do you think would be more popular?

You get the picture. I remember a much-loved college professor snidely dismissing the central conceit of The Victorian Internet, because, as he put it, the telegraph wasn’t built for porn. (He claimed that you couldn’t really understand the Internet without understanding exactly how significant pornographic Web sites and other unsavory enterprises have been to its technical development.) That might seem like an odd critique, but his broader point, I think, concerned the limits of historical analogy. The Internet contains multitudes. The telegraph was used for messaging. By contorting a modern paradigm so that it resembles some other, materially different historical paradigm, one risks diluting both concepts such that they actually become harder to understand.

The value of historical analogy lies not in the precision of its comparisons, but in the way it can add perspective to concerns you thought were yours alone. And, indeed, Standage capably demonstrates that hand-wringing over how new technologies are coarsening public discourse is as old as the Parthenon, if not older. Standage wisely notes that “the technology that is demonized today may end up being regarded as wholesome and traditional tomorrow, by which time another apparently dangerous new invention will be causing the same concerns.” In five years or so, all our anxiety over social media will have become anxiety over wearable augmented-reality devices like Google Glass—which, come to think of it, has a lot in common with the telescope. Both involve glass lenses. Both are expensive. Both offer users a new way of seeing the world. Tom, if you end up writing this book, I want a cut.

*Translation, from Horace: “Each desperate blockhead dares to write.”

Buy this book from Amazon and support Washington Monthly: Writing on the Wall: Social Media - The First 2,000 Years

Justin Peters is a correspondent for Slate and a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.

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