Review: It’s social media Jim, but not as we know it

Book - writings on the wall
Credit: Google Images

Social media is not a new phenomenon. Or at least this is what Tom Standage is attempting to demonstrate in his book “Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years”. And to an extent he does just that.

Society has seen a large shift in the past decade; social media is reasserting itself as THE big media player. Following the invention of the Internet, social media is now enjoying unprecedented reach and scale, which is in turn driving public discourse to use new ways of sharing information. But while the communication mediums and environments are changing daily, Standage seeks to provide a useful reminder that we are still, in essence, the same social beings. And this will not change.

Standage does his best to illustrate how historical social networks and the methods of sharing information are in fact echoed in their modern day counterparts. He does this by looking at the various “social media systems” that were in place throughout history. We are shown that social media systems are just an environment where information is passed person to person in social connections – there is no need for today’s technology for a social media system to be present. We all share the same underlying structures and dynamics in a two-way, conversational environment whereby information is passed between people along social networks (Standage, 2013).

Standage takes this idea and uses the individual chapters to focus on a particular point in history. Ever wanted to know what social media was like in Roman Times? Standage goes into this period with a fine tooth comb, as he discusses the first social-media ecosystem. He looks at how written correspondence was used as both an important means of distributing information and also as a way to define and maintain relationships with others (Standage, 2013). This shows that the Romans were a very social community, using papyrus rolls as a form of ‘instant communication’ similar to today’s twitter channel. He also goes on to discuss wall graffiti as working rather like a status page on a social network – people shared everyday activities, gave advice on services, had dialogues with each other, or even engaged in public banter (Standage, 2013).

Today’s internet discussion forums and social media platforms echo the structure of popular coffeehouses that were prevalent in the 1600s. Standage shows that whilst these were a valuable place to exchange information and knowledge, they were almost too free and open, and thus attracted complaints. This mirrors modern issues surrounding online criticism and abuse on social media platforms, as there is currently no real accountability.

Tom standage
Tom Standage. Credit: Google Images

Throughout his 288 pages Standage gives us an engaging and well written history of social media. He creates interesting links to the past, but for me it was too long, and at times it did feel a little like he was making up the word count by going off on tangents. Don’t get me wrong, they were interesting tangents, but I fail to see how smallpox mortality rates relate to history of social media.

All in all Standage has created an interesting read, even if it is just a history lesson!

Word Count: 521


Standage, T. (2013) Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years. London: Bloomsbury Publishing






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