Tweet Like a Roman: Social Media's Long History
It’s easy to assume that social media is a recent development. But the exchange of media within social networks goes back centuries. I think it can be traced back to Roman times, when members of the elite shared and copied letters, speeches and books with their social circles. The technology was different, but the desire to share information and connect with friends was the same.
This is just one of many historical precedents of modern social media. Others include Reformation-era pamphlets, the keeping of commonplace books, the sharing of news in Enlightenment coffeehouses, the pamphlets and local papers of the American Revolution, and the gossipy poems that circulated in pre-Revolutionary France.
These ancient forms of social media prompted many of the same questions that have arisen today. Can social media trigger revolutions? Is it a distracting waste of time? Is it just a fad? Examining the social-media systems that arose in centuries past can provide some unexpected answers.
Tom Standage is digital editor at The Economist and editor-in-chief of its website, Economist.com. He has been editor of the Technology Quarterly supplement, which covers emerging technology, since 2003. Tom is also the author of six history books, including the forthcoming “Writing on the Wall” (October 2013), the New York Times bestseller “A History of the World in Six Glasses” (2005), and “The Victorian Internet” (1998), a history of the telegraph. He holds a degree in engineering and computer science from Oxford University, and is the least musical member of a musical family. He is married and lives in London with his wife and children.