I don’t give ‘good read’ nods very often to books on history, but I think Tom Standage’s Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years (2013, Bloomsbury Publishing, Kindle Edition) is an excellent read – well organized, with a pleasant style, and full of interesting portrayals of important figures set in the context of their times.
The book had me from the start, with the “Introduction: Cicero’s Web.” I had a wonderful high school Latin teacher who taught Roman history, art, architecture, and mythology along with Latin grammar, Julius Caesar’s prose, Virgil’s Aeneid, and, yes, some of Cicero’s work, as well. So I loved revisiting old friends in the Introduction and “Chapter 2 The Roman Media: The First Social-Media Ecosystem” – and discovering both new facts and a new way to view those old friends and their times. I had not known about the use of graffiti on the walls of Pompeii and throughout the Roman Empire; knowing about the graffiti helped me understand both the upper class’ correspondence and everyone else’s graffiti as evidence of social networks in action, rather than “literature” in contrast with property defacement.
As Standage puts it, “social networks were the dominant means by which new ideas and information spread, in either spoken or written form” (KL 61-62)*. The scrolls and posted Acta and graffiti and subsequent “series of social-media systems that arose in very different times and places are linked by the common thread that they are based on the person-to-person sharing of information” (KL 78-79).
(*KL is my abbreviation of “Kindle Location.”)
Chapters 3 thru 8 are a romp through European, English, and American history, showing how social-media systems grew farther reaching and more complex after the advent of the printing press, with periodic cycles of censorship accompanied by harsh penalties, including death. These are chapters I will read again, looking for surprises I may have missed the first time, like the surprise I had at learning the role poetry played in court gossip and politics in both England and France. Given the myriad graduate courses I took in English Lit, and the scholarly articles I had to read, shouldn’t I have stumbled on this before? But the poetry Standage is talking about isn’t in the “canon of great poetry” — except, of course, some of it is, like John Donne’s. There is delightful stuff here about rebels from Luther to Paine, and coffee houses, and the stamp tax, and revolutions, and the need for a free press, and the glories and pitfalls of publishing.
Chapters 9 , 10, and 11 deal with the rise of mass media and the birth of digital social media much as previously discussed in my reviews of McChesney, Berkun, and Shirkey. Standage also describes the development of the internet from ARPANET. He argues that mass media is the opposite of social media, and the rise of digital social media is the re-emergence of the old social networking, with new tools to use which increase the speed and reach of our communications but serve the same purpose: to fulfill the age-old human need to form networks with others and to exchange information with them.
Now that I’ve finished the book, I find myself thinking most about content from “Chapter 1 The Ancient Foundations of Social Media: Why Humans Are Wired for Sharing.”
The last half of this chapter gives a good reprise, which I thoroughly enjoyed, of the history of written communication.
Writing evolved from using clay tokens to record quantities and was invented 5,000 years ago, by accountants. The first written documents come from the Mesopotamia, date from around 3400 B.C., and record bread and beer rations. Over the next 500 years, pictograms gave way to more abstract symbols, or ideograms, which were multiple wedge-shaped (“cuneiform”) impressions made with a stylus. Ideograms, which stand for sounds, appeared around 3100 B.C., probably to write people’s names, and led to the first general-purpose form of writing.
By 2600 B.C., cuneiform and hieroglyphic writing systems were flexible enough to record abstract ideas – hymns, religious texts, and messages. Purely alphabetic writing began in Canaanite script around 1800 B.C. For the next 1500 years, only a small number of people were literate: literacy was power, mostly limited to some of the ruling class who used it for administrative purposes. Literacy increased in Ancient Greece; the earliest true alphabet (with consonant and vowel symbols) emerged there in early 800 B.C. The addition of vowel symbols made it much easier to learn to read and write. (Those of us who struggle with Hebrew are painfully aware of the learning to read without vowel symbols.)
But it’s the earlier part of Chapter 1 that I think about most. It begins with a quote from Robin Dunbar, “Without gossip, there would be no society,” and traces the evolutionary development of the brain and language as necessary consequence of primates’ living in large groups and having to survive within a complex social structure. Given the importance of gossip (“information about common acquaintances’ control of resources, sexual activity, alliances, and disputes operating at a societal level” [KL 234-236]) to human society, I wonder at the motives for its bad reputation as ill-intentioned slander, then remember that much of that reputation is tied to misogyny (in a patriarchal culture, the dominant attitude is that men pass social information; women gossip).
Standage sites research by Dunbar frequently in this chapter. “The larger the group, the more mental processing capacity is needed to keep track of the growing web of relationships” (KL 167-168). Primates need a large brain to form alliances and coalitions, balance their own needs with those of the group, and hypothesize about others’ view of the world. “The fact that group size strongly correlates with neocortex volume suggests that the primate brain is indeed a primarily social organ” (KL 174-175).
Standage says, “Dunbar has gone so far as to suggest that the exchange of social information, rather than the need to pass on information about food sources or to coordinate hunting, was the driving force behind the development of language, because using language makes maintaining social bonds much more efficient— which in turn allows for larger (and safer) groups” (KL 222-224). “Whether or not it really did drive the development of language, the exchange of social information does seem to be the main thing for which language is used: it accounts for around two thirds of spontaneous human conversation, according to observational studies” (KL 226-227).
Given the size of the human neocortex, the average group size for humans should be 148, which Dunbar rounded to 150 (KL 188-189). This group size recurs often in human societies – the average size of a hunter-gatherer clan, earliest farming settlements, many villages recorded in the Domesday Book (KL 190-191). It is the largest group size in which everyone can know everyone else (KL 192). Below the 150-person limit, peer pressure can maintain order, because everyone knows each other (KL 196-197). The typical size of a military company is 150 (KL 197).
Primates use grooming (which is only partly hygienic and also is pleasurable) to build and maintain strong relationships with a few others from their group. Members of a grooming coalition support each other, steer members away from rivals, come to each other’s aid, etc., and they send social signals by who they groom, for how long, and so on. “The constant interplay between grooming coalitions helps resolve and prevent conflicts, knitting the group as a whole together and making all its members safer from predators” (KL 163-165).
Humans shifted from physical grooming to speech, which has three big advantages: you can talk to more than one person at a time, you can talk while doing something else, and you can find out about things you didn’t witness. Speech also lets people influence others’ opinions, share judgments about others’ trustworthiness, and let the group more easily detect members who take advantage of others, because “those who do not witness bad behavior directly will soon learn about it” (KL 216-18).
Standage says Dunbar’s research found that most people have 5 intimate real-world friends (akin to members of a grooming coalition) and another 10 close friends within their larger network of 150. Interaction on Facebook similarly concentrates within a core group, an average of 7 other people for male users and 10 for females. This core group is the digital equivalent of a grooming coalition (KL 200- 203). “Using social media is merely the most recent and most efficient way that humans have found to scratch a prehistoric itch. The compelling nature of social media, then, can be traced back in part to the evolution of the social brain, as monkeys and other primates evolved over the past thirty-five million years; in part to the exchange of gossip following the emergence of human language, around one hundred thousand years ago; and in part to the origins of writing, around five thousand years ago” (KL 124-128).
In the last paragraphs of the book (“Epilogue”), Standage says:
…..Whether or not its particular model proves to have broad appeal, the future of social media is likely to see new models based on decentralized architectures and paying customers being added to the mix.
But whatever form social media takes in the future, one thing is clear: it is not going away. As this book has argued, social media is not new. It has been around for centuries. Today, blogs are the new pamphlets. Microblogs and online social networks are the new coffee houses. Media-sharing sites are the new commonplace books. 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. 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. (KL 4221-4227).
I’ll say it again: This book is an excellent read. (And, yes, I first borrowed it from the NLC but then bought my own Kindle copy.) My thanks to Nebraska Learns 2.0 for recommending it.
P.S. There’s so much in this book, I can’t imagine it NOT being useful to a librarian or anyone who wants to know something about how today’s social media reflects our past and relates to our basic urge to communicate. Or about the history of written communication. Or about differences in attitudes toward copyright or being paid for one’s published work or why freedom of the press is important. Kind of basic to libraries, yes?