Tyee Books

Social Media, Roman Style

With 'Atimetus got me pregnant,' they invented the tweet. And it took off from there.

By Crawford Kilian 25 Apr 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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This graphic from a Pompeii wall shows an exceedingly hip young couple, he with scroll, she with tablet.

Some of us began hanging out in Usenet groups in the 1980s and '90s, or signed up with CompuServe or AOL, or gazed awestruck at what Mozilla revealed of the World Wide Web (the proto-browser even offered a random pick, because we had no idea what was out there). Since then, we have become ever more slavishly dependent on social media.

The rest of the world has told us: "Get a life." And we can see their point. One young Australian recently collected 47 individual tickets for texting while driving -- right up to the point where she hit a bicyclist.

Tom Standage has redeemed us. In his well-written and entertaining book, Writing on the Wall: Social Media -- The First 2,000 Years, he argues that email, blogs, Twitter and Facebook are simply the latest version of humanity's natural fondness for swapping information. What's more, he says, the mass media -- newspapers, radio, movies, TV -- are an aberration and deserve oblivion.

Standage is a historian of science and technology; an earlier book, The Victorian Internet, describes the impact of the telegraph on the 19th century. Now he goes all the way back to our primate ancestors and their fondness for sociable behaviour. It first took the form of grooming -- picking lice out of one another's fur, especially if the other was a high-status individual who protected his or her friends.

With language, grooming turned into gossip -- chatter about other people in the group, supplying useful and entertaining information. Gossip bought a network of friends and allies.

Written text was originally a kind of spreadsheet on clay, tallying livestock and other forms of wealth. But by the time of the Romans, the social media were in use -- at least by the rich.

Standage points out that even the noblest Romans spent time in the provinces as governors (or exiles). They still needed their networks at home, and letters from friends were a convenient way to stay in touch (and maybe wrangle a ticket back to Rome).

With a good postal system using good roads, such correspondence was highly popular -- so popular that satirists poked fun (in their own letters) at the letter geeks hurrying to the port to pick up their mail from overseas.

In a sense, it was voicemail: the author of a letter dictated it to a literate slave, who wrote it down and made copies. Such letters were written as "rivers of words," without spaces or punctuation. When they reached their destination, a specialist slave called a lector would read it aloud, putting in pauses and emphasis. (Standage observes that "slaves were the Roman equivalent of broadband.")

Other media were equally social. For local texting, you could send a slave across town with a tablet holding a wax "screen" on which your message was inscribed. Your friend could smooth out the wax and write a reply, using abbreviations for stock phrases.

The Romans also had a daily news feed, created by Julius Caesar himself. The acta diurna populi Romani -- daily acts of the people of Rome -- was a way to provide political information to his populist supporters, thereby undermining his enemies in the senate. (Diurna is the root of our modern word "journalism.")

'Atimetus got me pregnant'

With literate slaves so cheap, Rome's elite had the ability but not the need to invent a printing press. Aspiring authors would dedicate their books to rich and powerful patrons, in hopes that the patrons would order copies made by their own slaves for distribution to other aristocrats. Meanwhile, ordinary Romans were inventing Twitter and Facebook by literally writing on walls:

"On April 19, I made bread."
"The man I am having dinner with is a barbarian."
"Atimetus got me pregnant."

Graffiti were also the equivalent of #bcpoli and #cdnpoli, with pitches for preferred political candidates and frequent dirty-trick campaigns: "The petty thieves request the election of Gaius Cuspius Pansa as aedile."

The early Christians relied on social media to link their scattered congregations. But being ordinary, middle-class Romans, they couldn't afford slaves to read St. Paul's letters. So Christian copyists invented sentences, capitalization, and punctuation as a way to give readers clues about how to read Paul aloud. Such letters were copied and forwarded to far more groups than just the Corinthians or Galatians. Significantly, Christians ditched the scroll and adopted the codex, creating what we know as the modern book. Like today's tablets, the codex was portable, easy to navigate, and easy to read. (But we scroll again on our screens.)

Social media also dominated the spread of Protestantism. Newfangled printing presses multiplied almost as fast as the books and pamphlets they cranked out. Martin Luther was a new-media genius: He published countless pamphlets against the Catholic Church's evils, and his vernacular German was instantly understandable to his readers. His opponents, still thinking in terms of Latin correspondence and medieval illuminated manuscripts, were simply outmatched. "In all," writes Standage, "some six million pamphlets, perhaps a third of them by Luther, were printed in the first decade of the turbulent period known today as the Reformation."

Martin Luther, flame warrior

Luther was also a skilled flamer. In one pamphlet, he addressed a trolling critic: "I am sorry now that I despised Tetzel. Ridiculous as he was, he was more acute than you. You cite no scripture. You give no reasons." Significantly, Luther's pamphlets inspired Protestantism by "synchronizing opinion," much as social media did in the Arab Spring.

The modern newspaper arose in the new coffee houses of 17th-century London. Every customer who entered was asked, "Have you any news?" Many of those who hung out in a particular house (Lloyd's was favoured by shippers and insurers) began to keep records of what they learned. These were the first newsletters, first copied out in longhand and eventually printed as corantos.

For just that reason, the authorities frowned on early news media. Longhand newsletters were tolerated as low-circulation and often written by upper-class gentlemen for their upper-class friends. But a printed coranto reached ordinary people with "scurrilous and fictitious" reports.

Still the news cycle accelerated: gossip in a coffee house was soon all over London (or Europe), attracting even more coffee-house visits to exchange the news both orally and in print -- daily, for hours. Standage says some thought coffee houses were socially harmful: "They lamented, like critics of social media today, that coffee houses were distracting people and encouraging them to waste time sharing trivia with their friends when they ought to be doing useful work."

Technological limits on printing made most newspapers one-man operations serving local communities. But in the early U.S., newspapers could be sent free through the mail to other papers, turning each into a kind of blog with the editor's comments filled out with copied news from elsewhere. This was a low-cost, low-profit business model -- much like modern blogging.

Synchronizing opinion for war

But in the 19th century, everything from the telegraph to the steam-powered press to increased literacy came together to create the highly capitalized modern mass media. For a penny or two, you could read breaking news gathered by foreign correspondents (and paid for by ads for local merchants).

You could also get your opinion synchronized for you by William Randolph Hearst and other media moguls as you were dragged into the Spanish-American War -- and a long succession of other media-promoted disasters. As journalist A.J. Leibling observed, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one."

Radio, film, and TV only made matters worse. Apart from a brief period of amateur "ham radio," they all needed immense capital to produce news and entertainment -- and even then they needed advertising, whether as commercials or as product placement. The mass media had little need or room for individual response beyond fan mail or letters to the editor. News and entertainment became a one-way street.

Media for couch potatoes

"The broadcast model," writes Standage, "considers the role of the radio listener and television viewer to be merely that of a passive consumer. This is as far as it is possible to be from a media system in which people create, distribute, share, and rework information and exchange it with each other. It is the opposite of social media."

Standage is therefore not too concerned about the demise of the mainstream media. But he sees potential for harm in the new social media as well: They enable everyone from the NSA to teenage jerks to monitor what people are saying, and punish them for saying it.

He also makes a convincing point that new technologies are always opposed by those in charge if they permit the lower orders to make their views known. Literate workers reading penny-dreadfuls and dime novels -- what was the world coming to? Airheads tweeting about what they had for lunch? Who cares about their opinions?

Eventually the new social media will settle down. "They are all shared social platforms that enable ideas to travel from one person to another, rippling through networks of people connected by social bonds, rather than having to squeeze through the privileged bottleneck of broadcast media," Standage concludes. "The rebirth of social media in the Internet age represents a profound shift -- and a return, in many respects, to the way things used to be."  [Tyee]

Read more: Science + Tech

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