Sunday, November 10, 2013

Social Media is 2,000 years Old

Marcus Tullius Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero

Today it's easy to assume that social media platforms are a recent development, a phenomenon unique to the Internet age. But the exchange of media along social networks of friends and acquaintances is in fact much older than Facebook, Twitter or MySpace. It could be the mantra of the Twitter/Facebook generation, but this instruction was actually written 2,000 years ago. Long before Mark Zuckerberg, there was Marcus Tullius Cicero. Back in about 51 BC, this philosopher was changing the way people shared information. His writings were passed around Rome from one person to another through a team of messengers. And as the above quote shows, like most Twitter users today, Cicero always wanted to know what was going on in the world. During one foray out of Rome to a villa in the country, he wrote in a letter to his friend Atticus back in the city: ‘I shall write to you nearly every day, for I prefer to send letters to no purpose rather than for you to have no messenger to give one to, if there should be anything you think I ought to know.’

Writing for no purpose? Cicero would have loved Facebook…

This exchange is detailed in Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years. Written by The Economist’s digital editor, Tom Standage, it puts forward the theory that Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest et al are just the latest incarnations of a tradition which dates back two millennia.Cicero was a figurehead in the first ever social network, according to Standage, who says rich Romans wrote their thoughts down on papyrus rolls and used messengers to deliver them to their counterparts. But just as social media today is tagged and shared and reshared, these letters would be copied and sent to others in the chain. ‘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,’ said Cicero on one occasion. For messages sent across short distances which required a quick response, words were inscribed on wax tablets in wooden frames, the precursor to the iPad.

The Romans even dabbled in abbreviations – as Standage details in his book, SPD stood for ‘salutem plurimam dicit’, or ‘sends many greetings’. No room for LOL or YOLO then.,‘Social media environments have existed for centuries and don’t require digital technology to operate,’ Standage told Metro. ‘A social media environment requires a certain amount of literacy and the Roman elite were a fairly literate bunch. Today we have computers and broadband, but the Romans had slaves, both scribes who could copy out documents and messengers to deliver them. ‘Members of the Roman elite wrote to each other constantly, recounting the latest political machinations, passing on items of interest from others and providing commentary and opinion.’ Those in Rome who were less than elite had their own social media wall. In Pompeii, graffiti let them express feelings which wouldn’t seem out of place on a Facebook timeline today – messages such as, ‘The man I am having dinner with is a barbarian,’ and ‘Atimetus got me pregnant’. Writing on the Wall explains how social media runs throughout history. In the Tudor court of Anne Boleyn, for example, the Devonshire Manuscript was a 16th century Facebook, allowing young courtiers to write and respond to each other through poetry and gossip in the pages of one single document which was passed around.

Whether it’s a Roman scroll or tweet, the effect is the same, he says. ‘All these different technologies push the same buttons in our brains. They all satisfy a timeless urge to connect and share with other people. Social media is as popular as it is because it lets us scratch a prehistoric itch.’ Standage believes the internet has let us go back to social media’s historic roots, as the one-way mass media model epitomised by the 19th century printing press has given way to something more democratic and all-inclusive. ‘The internet makes social distribution as quick and easy as broadcast, but opens it to everyone,’ he said. ‘So the rise of social media today is, in many ways, a return to the way things used to be.’ What hasn’t changed is the negative reaction to social media – the coffee houses frequented by England’s writers and scientists in the 17th century were branded dangerous and a waste of time by their detractors, for instance.

Marcus Tullius Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero

So the present has become the past, but what about the future?

‘I think wearable technologies like Google Glass will, within a decade or so, allow us to overlay our view of the world with a layer of social information,’ said Standage. ‘Imagine going into a crowded room and being able to see who you know, or who you have friends in common with. We’ll see information from social media interwoven with our experience of the real world, a process that has already begun with smartphones. I expect we’ll end up with smart contact lenses and then implants in our head.’

Examining the impact of social media systems that arose in centuries past can help us answer these questions and put today's worries in perspective. At the same time, our modern experience of social media enables us to see the past with new eyes. The deepest lesson is that when you send a tweet or share a link on Facebook, you are continuing a deep and rich tradition of person-to-person sharing that goes back to Roman times, more than 2,000 years ago. Social media does not simply link us to each other today — it also links us to the past.

Constant updates in our brain without having to do anything? Cicero would have loved it.


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