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Writing on the Wall: Social Media - The First 2,000 Years

Writing on the Wall: Social Media - The First 2,000 Years

Tom Standage


A tour through the history of media, beginning with Cicero's speeches and letters and continuing through to the familiar Facebook and Twitter.

The author asks a simple question: are social media, and the questions they raise about people's interaction styles, really new phenomena? He asked similar questions about the internet as a whole in The Victorian Internet, his (excellent) history of the telegraph system, and the answer he arrive at here is similar. Unlikely though it may seem at first glance, the majority of the history of media has actually been of social media, in the sense of information flowing informally along the relationships between individuals. The recent prominence of newspapers, radio, and television have blinded us to the fact that these broadcast media are actually historical anomalies, expressing a centralising and one-way tendency that is singularly unusual in the annals of human communication.

For me, the most interesting observation came in the epilogue. Through fretting about the impact of social media, families sometimes adopt strategies like "Unplugged Sunday" where internet-connected devices are banned in favour of more communal pursuits – and these pursuits may involve watching television together, making use of a technology that was previously targeted as the destroyer of family time. (The same might be said of reading novels, targeted in their turn in an earlier age.) Yesterday's radical, disruptive technology becomes today's comfort blanket sanctified by time and familiarity with startling regularity.

4/5. Finished 22 March 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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