I can think of two general sorts of readers who will read Tom Standage's newest (2013) book. Its title is WRITING ON THE WALL. The explanatory sub-title is SOCIAL MEDIA - THE FIRST 2,000 YEARS.
-- (1) People who already know a lot about Facebook, Twitter, permutations of Google, email and such current information sharing modes of communication. Of course they are NOT subscriber's to Henry Ford's famous dictum, "History is bunk!" They are people who either guess or know that 2013 Social Media have precursors and want more details.
-- (2) Readers who know about people to people communications among Greeks, Romans, early Christians, during the Reformation in Germany or during the English Civil Wars, the American and French Revolutions, the earliest telegraphers, etc., and want more details and/or a perspective on what the past teaches about the future of Twitter & Co.
Neither group will be disappointed by WRITING ON THE WALL. =-=-=-=-=-=
There are two or three recurring themes in WRITING ON THE WALL.
-- The first is that humans are social animals whose naturally largest live-together community is 148, the so called "Dunbar Number." Standage relies heavily on studies by R.I.M. Dunbar, including the 2003 essay, "Coevolution of Neocortical Size, Group Size and Language in Humans." This is one of six items by Dunbar in Standage's bibliography. The Hutterite Christian sect, to take one example, finds that when a local community reaches 150, it should split. For a larger number requires laws and a police force to maintain unity. In a smaller number mere peer pressure suffices to maintain order. Similarly a majority of today's Facebook social network users number have between 120 and 130 "friends."
-- Within the larger group, there are smaller coalitions of "groomers" who interact via "gossip" to manage shifting group power relationships.
Such insights are applied over and over again down the centuries in WRITING ON THE WALL. Human language is only 100,000 years old, writing only 5,000 and printing not yet 600 years old. Initially writing was a craft confined to Sumerian or Egyptian elites. But Greek and Roman civilization threw off rich aristocratic elites who used inexpensive but well educated slaves as their scribes. Such Greeks and Romans dictated notes to slaves who copied texts and delivered them across a city to aristocratic friends of their owners. Caesar, Cicero and others even when far from their power base, Rome, had their letters copied and circulated far and wide through informal face-to-face personal networks.
Later we see Martin Luther outdueling his academic rivals by switching from writing learned, thoroughly argued and documented Latin to popular pamphlets in German. He outdid in number of readers his first 60 Papist opponents more than ten to one. Tom Standage credits Luther with genius-level skills as a popular communicator on behalf of a powerful religious revolution. And he underlines certain of Luther's skills which remind of today's social media.
We also see Standage's model of analysis a la "social media" (which he regular treats as a singular not a plural compound noun) in the letters of Paul of Tarsus and other early Christian leaders. Those letters were regularly copied and passed from one believer to another. Similar things happened, of course, later in the age of printing: in Tudor and Stuart England, pre-revolutionary and revolutionary North America and France.
Standage argues that the century and a half from say 1830 to 1980 -- the era of dominance by centralized broadcast media -- newspapers, then radio then television -- was an aberration. They did not allow the give and take, the two-way communication, the rise of debates and idea exchanges now associated with Facebook, Twitter, etc. The recent Arab Spring is looked into as well as efforts by China (no Facebook or Twitter allowed) to permit competing social media under loose but effective government control.
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About the reviewer
(Thomas) Patrick Killough (qigongbear)
I am a retired American diplomat. Married for 47 years. My wife Mary (PhD in German and Linguistics) and I have two sons, six grandsons and two granddaughters. Our home is Highland Farms Retirement Community … more