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Did Cicero send texts?
2 December 2013

In his book, Writing on the Wall: Social Media the first 2000 years, The Economist's Tom Standage explores how social media can be traced to Roman times and argues that the way the media has worked for the past century is an anomaly.

You’re no stranger to publishing, having written five other history books, but what was the trigger for writing this one?

In 2010 I was put in charge of The Economist’s website and digital editions. I’ve always found history a useful way to think about the future, and I've touched on media history in my previous work, for example in my first book, The Victorian Internet, which likens the telegraph of the 19th century to the modern Internet. So I began to read more deeply about the history of news, and I soon realised that the mass-media models that are now being disrupted by the internet are actually quite young; they only date back to the 19th century.

Before that the media environment was much more decentralised and relied on social distribution and recommendation. So the rise of social media is a reversion to the way things used to be. That was the germ of the book.

The premise of Writing on the Wall is that the term 'social media' refers to a very old idea and that people have in fact been using it for thousands of years...tell us more.

My argument is that social media, which I define as "media you get from other people, shared along social networks" goes back to Roman times. You don’t need a digital network to do it. The Romans did it with papyrus rolls, and relied on slaves to deliver and copy messages cheaply, whereas today we have Twitter and broadband connections. But the way the Romans filtered, recommended and copied information for their friends and acquaintances, in an era without printing presses and broadcast media, looks strikingly modern. My book then looks at other social media ecosystems that emerged over the centuries, and asks what lessons today’s social media users can learn.

In the first century BC, wealthy Romans, like the legendary orator Cicero, used scribes to write messages with a stylus on wax tablets mounted in wooden frames – sound like the iPads of their day?

Yes, as well as using papyrus rolls, Romans made notes and exchanged messages on wax tablets that look strikingly like modern smartphones and tablets. There’s one in a museum in Cologne that looks just like an iPad - the same size, shape and aspect ratio. If Cicero wanted a quick answer to a question he’d jot it down on one of these and have a messenger carry it across Rome, and the recipient would write the answer. It was a kind of Roman text-messaging.

The Romans even had abbreviations like SVBEEV, which was roughly equivalent to TTFN. Papyrus rolls were used for longer messages or those carried over longer distances.

And for the Romans, graffiti was not regarded as defacement, but was a form of media in which anyone could participate – you say the first example of real wall posts.

It’s hard for us to imagine this now, but wealthy Romans in Pompeii wrote greetings on each other’s walls, inside their houses. It was a bit like a visitor’s book, I think. It meant you could show off who had visited, and emphasise your literacy and that of your visitors.

Your book shows how the use of social media for self-expression is nothing new and dates back at least as far as the Tudor court of the 16th century. Give us some examples.

Poems circulated in the Tudor and Stuart courts, both orally and written on scraps of paper. Some were very short, almost like tweets; others were longer. But people shared them with their friends, rewrote them on occasion, and copied them down into troves of personal information called commonplace books. Commonplace books that survive from the Tudor period contain a huge variety of texts, including letters, poems, medical remedies, prose, jokes, ciphers, riddles, quotations and drawings.

The practice of maintaining a commonplace book and exchanging texts with others served as a form of self-definition: which poems or aphorisms you chose to copy into your book or to pass on to your correspondents said a lot about you, and the book as a whole was a reflection of your character and personality. Then as now, people enjoyed being able to articulate their interests and define themselves by selectively compiling and resharing content created by others. The mere act of sharing something can, in other words, be a form of self-expression; something that was as true centuries ago as it is today.

You also cite similarities between the "chaotic and adversarial media environment of the 1640s" with today’s blogging culture and say that some bloggers, recognising this parallel, have adopted 17th century pseudonyms. Such as?

One example is Mercurius Politicus, which was a pseudonym for Marchmont Nedham and has been revived as a blog today. Pamphlets were very flexible, like blog posts are today. They could vary in length, tone and style. News, history and opinion were freely mixed and presented in a range of formats. Most strikingly of all, the pamphlets of the 1640s existed in an interconnected web, constantly referring to, rebutting or quoting each other. Very often the jumping-off point of a pamphlet was to respond, add to, criticise or praise another pamphlet.

The middle of the 17th century saw the rise of coffeehouses which became an “"alluring social platform for sharing information" but were frowned on for distracting people from their work – so nothing much has changed then?

Indeed. This is one of my favourite stories from the book. Coffeehouses were the media-sharing platforms of their day, where people went to read and discuss the latest news and gossip. Critics thought this was just wasting time, and that coffeehouses were "enemies to diligence and industry!". But they turned out to be crucibles of innovation that spawned advances in science and commerce.

You chart social media over two millennia and say it is clear that social media, in the form of pamphlets, letters, and local newspapers, played a role in the Reformation and in the American and French revolutions. Does everyone agree with that?

The importance of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, in making the case for American independence is undeniable; people pointed it out at the time. What I’m doing is inviting us to see it as an example of social media, which it was. We can see how it was shared among the Founding Fathers and their friends, and then went on to find a wider audience as it rippled through the American colonies’ network of local papers, all of which exchanged material with each other.

The role of the circulation of poetry in undermining the Ancien regime in France is not quite as clear-cut, but it’s very clearly a social-media system, and the government would not have monitored it or tried to influence it (as the Chinese government is doing today with microblogs, or weibo) unless it was worried about its ability to change people’s attitudes.

You conclude that social forms of media based on sharing, copying and personal recommendation, which prevailed for centuries, have been dramatically reborn and that we’re settling back into old ways of doing things...

Yes, my point is that today’s social media is a rebirth, a return to the way things used to be before the advent of mass media in the late 19th century. By looking back at the period before mass-circulation newspapers, radio and TV, we can learn a lot about today’s media environment.

You’ve included an enormous amount of historical data – how long did the research take?

Between two and three years. The gaps between my books have got bigger over the years; I’m now down to a book every four years, instead of one every other year.

You interviewed founder of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee, as part of your research – did you learn anything surprising by speaking to him?

It was interesting that even he was surprised at what people did with his invention, and how it allowed people to combine material and information from all over the world in new ways. I also asked him about the tweet he sent during the Olympics opening ceremony. Did he really send it, or did someone press send backstage? He said it was down to "the magic of theatre".

What can anyone working in PR learn from this book?

The main thing is that the way the media has worked for the past century is an anomaly, historically speaking. So as we go from a broadcast world to one that is more social, inclusive and conversational, there’s a lot we can learn by looking at history, because these kinds of environments have existed before. Also, there’s the tale of how the Catholic church totally messed up its response to Martin Luther. Essentially the pope dismissed him as an irrelevant blogger who did not deserve a reply. I think most chief executives have got past that stage by now, but perhaps some have not.

And finally, you’re also digital editor at The Economist and editor-in-chief of Economist.com – anything you discovered when you were writing this book that you put into practice in your job?

Well, I’ve concluded that social is not going away and needs to be part of our digital strategy. The task for all of us in the traditional media is to find ways to make social sharing work for us rather than against us. That means allowing sampling and sharing of our content via a metered paywall, in the case of The Economist. I’ve also created what I call “ambassadorial” content, such as our new explainer blog, that is intended to bring new readers into our website and make them aware of what we do.

A lot of people think The Economist only writes about economics. In fact we cover politics, business, science and the arts; we’re a weekly newspaper for the world. Social media provides the single most effective way to reach the millions of intellectually curious people out there who we think should be Economist readers, but aren't.

Buy a copy of Tom's book here.