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Writing on the Wall: Social Media - The First 2,000 Years [Kindle Edition]

Tom Standage
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (67 customer reviews)

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Book Description

From the bestselling author of A History of the World in 6 Glasses, the story of social media from ancient Rome to the Arab Spring and beyond.

Social media is anything but a new phenomenon. From the papyrus letters that Cicero and other Roman statesmen used to exchange news, to the hand-printed tracts of the Reformation and the pamphlets that spread propaganda during the American and French revolutions, the ways people shared information with their peers in the past are echoed in the present. After decades of newspapers, radio, and television dominating in dissemination of information, the Internet has spawned a reemergence of social media as a powerful new way for individuals to share information with their friends, driving public discourse in new ways.

Standage reminds us how historical social networks have much in common with modern social media. The Catholic Church's dilemmas in responding to Martin Luther's attacks are similar to those of today's large institutions in responding to criticism on the Internet, for example, and seventeenth-century complaints about the distractions of coffeehouses mirror modern concerns about social media. Invoking figures from Thomas Paine to Vinton Cerf, co-inventor of the Internet, Standage explores themes that have long been debated, from the tension between freedom of expression and censorship to social media's role in spurring innovation and fomenting revolution. Writing on the Wall draws on history to cast provocative new light on today's social media and encourages debate and discussion about how we'll communicate in the future.

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Whatever adolescents and technophiles might think, social media is nothing new. Standage (A History of the World in 6 Glasses, 2005) explores the human impulse to socialize and the earlier technologies, from papyrus to printing press, that accommodated that impulse. Messengers and travelers shuttled papyrus rolls throughout the Roman Empire. An early Roman newspaper, founded by Julius Caesar, no less, was posted, and readers were expected to copy it and distribute the news themselves through their social networks. The wax tablet bore strong resemblance to the iPad. Pamphlets and news ballads went viral, spread throughout Europe by travelers, and the Devonshire Manuscript was the Tudor-era Facebook. Standage compares the back-and-forth of ancient graffiti comments to comment threads in blogs and puts Paul’s epistles in the context of social media as he and other apostles spread Christianity. Rumors, gossip, love poems, and political and religious unrest were all part of the stew of discussion as technology morphed into mass communication and the Internet age. Standage offers historical perspective on such concerns about evolving social media as faddishness, coarsening of discourse, distraction from serious work, and erosion of social skills. Still, the social media evolution marched on, influencing politics and religion and aiding revolution in Europe and the Americas. A thoroughly fascinating look at the evolution of social media. --Vanessa Bush


"Standage captures quite beautifully the essence of the human need to connect and interact, both its banality and world-altering power." —Publishers Weekly

"A thoroughly fascinating look at the evolution of social media." —Booklist, starred review

“Provocative . . . a wealth of information.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Standage has just this one big point to make, but he makes it elegantly and instructively . . .  what we tend to regard as the radiant novelty of the digital age may really be a rebirth.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Tom Standage once again displays his ingenious gift for connecting our historical past to the debates and technologies of the present day.” —Steven Johnson, author of Future Perfect and Where Good Ideas Come From

Product Details

  • File Size: 4169 KB
  • Print Length: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; 1 edition (October 15, 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00CIR9856
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #233,425 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ancient Social Networks are Fascinating! September 5, 2013
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
When I heard that Tom Standage, the author of A History of the World in 6 Glasses had a new book out, the Writing on the Wall, I jumped on it. As someone who checks Facebook throughout the day and loves history, I thought this would be a perfect, joyous read. I was right.

From the first page of the book, dealing with one of my heroes, Cicero, you will be pulled back through time while feeling very connected to the present. Cicero used his own social network to gather information, keep track of friends and rivals, and even learn what was happening in other countries. I found it fascinating that a letter could reach Britain in five weeks and Syria in seven weeks (p. 2). In a time before actual letter service this is remarkable.

But not just Rome gets a look under the microscope. From the beginning of time and how man's mind is wired for social media, to Luther, to the present (Including a very interesting chapter on how the mid century's huge media networks limited social media and contact) you travel from the beginning of social media to the present.

I love this book. I really recommend this as a gift to yourself and others. It is a perfect vacation book with gripping, well written and easy to read chapters. No matter where I turned, I found interesting tidbits like coffeehouse gossip goes back much farther than Starbucks (to about 1650) and an easier printing experience helping spark our own revolution.

This book is a revelation and joy. Tear yourself away from Facebook long enough to read The Writing on the Wall. You will be overjoyed that you did.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good thesis, but drags too much in the middle September 19, 2013
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
The basic argument behind the book - that social networking isn't really new, and that in fact the "disruption" caused by Facebook, Twitter, and the rest isn't really a disruption at all, but rather more like a return to the norm - was quite interesting. Prior to reading the book, I didn't know that ancient Romans in far-flung provinces kept up with the happenings in the capital via social networks. I had never considered that Martin Luther and Thomas Paine sought redress of their grievances in much the same way as did the people in the Arab Spring, so again that part of the book was interesting.

Unfortunately, I did feel that most chapters were just entirely too long. Each chapter is devoted to a specific time period, and the author generally made his case quite quickly, but then seemed to feel the need to pad the page count, so rather than making his case and moving on, he makes his case, and then provides another example to buttress it, and then another, and then another, and then another. I couldn't help but keep thinking "OK, I get it ... please move on!" in almost every chapter.

Thankfully, the book redeems itself in the final chapters, which focus on the rise of mass media, how that was the true disruption, and how the internet is allowing us to really get back to the way things used to be.

If you're interested in social media or how technology impacts society, the book is a fairly decent read. If only the middle chapters were each half as long.
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22 of 27 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
There's no way I could have resisted Tom Standage's book, which promised to show how social media is anything but a new phenomenon. I've been online since long before online was cool, when BBSes were long-distance modem calls; I've been running online communities since CompuServe was a dominant force; I've been writing Amazon reviews since 1998 (this is #804); and I've been doing "social media" since before anyone gave it a name. Twitter? Google+? Facebook? Yeah, I have a bunch of "followers," which is why my name's on the cover of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Twitter Marketing.

But I see all of these as part of the same universal human urge: It's all just a conversation. We all like to talk with each other about the things that interest us. When we can't connect in the "mass media" (whether for political reasons or the desire to find People Like Me), we find alternate ways to do so.

Standage apparently sees "social media" the same way, and he traces its back to Cicero (who wrote letters on papyrus to exchange news across the Roman Empire, urging friends to copy the letters, annotate with their own comments, and share with others... an extremely slow Facebook). He does a splendid job of casting the historical influences of communication styles in current terms, such as a chapter on "How Luther went viral" and "And so to the coffeehouse: How social media promotes innovation."

In a way, however, this is as much about the history of ALL communication media, not just social media.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What's not new about social media October 14, 2013
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Tom Standage, who bears his research lightly, has written a book about social media that has substance and ideas. He reviews many forms of social media from the past, from Roman graffiti through coffee houses and the circulating manuscripts of the 17th century to the telegraph - and finally to the present day.

Did you know that the Romans had newspapers that circulated from the capital to the provinces? Or that, while the telegraph made it possible for users to communicate messages, the real social community was among the operators? The operators, much like today's Internet users, had friends they never met, and talked to them daily.

People like other people, and like to be in contact with them. That's why the internet, originally intended for scientific communication and later used for commerce, is now overwhelmingly devoted to person-to-person communication, whether by Twitter, email, Facebook, or whatever comes next.

The most interesting point he makes is that the mass media of the 20th century were an aberation. Yes, radio and TV gave lots of people similar experiences and knowledge, all at once. THAT was revolutionary and unprecendented. But we soon found our way back to social media.

Props for Standage for distinguishing between the Internet and the Web, which some writers do not. And bigger props to him for recognizing that, while social media are not new, the instantaneous widespread nature of electronic social media does make a difference.

The book is well-written and interesting nearly all the way (a little too much about Elizabethan and Jacobean circulating manuscripts in the very middle, but not much). Standage knows how to tell a story in the service of a larger point, and he knows how to use research without burdening us with it.

A fine read.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars a fun read. Standage does a great job describing methods ...
This was, as expected, a fun read. Standage does a great job describing methods of communication throughout history and shows, pretty convincingly, the more things change, the more... Read more
Published 2 months ago by N. Wojinski
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
The book is very easy to read, but also very worthwhile to make you think.
Published 2 months ago by Ralph Olliges, Jr
5.0 out of 5 stars Terrific
This book is definitely worth your time! It is full of great historical information, and it was a pleasure to read.
Published 4 months ago by Daniel L Emery
5.0 out of 5 stars Standage has an amazing ability to show how current technologies are...
Standage has an amazing ability to show how current technologies are actually extensions of earlier methods that met the same human needs.
Published 7 months ago by Kent Schnake
5.0 out of 5 stars I recommend this book for all teachers and students of the history of...
Absolutely the best book ever written on the history of writing! The history of social media in this book is also fascinating!
Published 7 months ago by Libby
5.0 out of 5 stars Concise and entertaining overview on the origins of social networks...
Concise and entertaining overview on the origins of social networks and social media. A must read for anybody working and interested in media, traditional and social, as well as... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Martin Miliev
5.0 out of 5 stars Actually everything Standage writes is awesome and this is no...
This is a must read book. Actually everything Standage writes is awesome and this is no exception.
Published 7 months ago by royalsunset
5.0 out of 5 stars College Class text
Text for a social media college class.
Published 8 months ago by Melinda Ingersoll
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing historical view of the true meanings of social and ...
Amazing historical view of the true meanings of social and mass media. Standage has controversial views but poses great questions about the benefits of all media.
Published 8 months ago by Patrick Weller
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, Worth Reading
Fun to read -- the last half seemed to go a bit faster, though that could be me. I'd previously read The Victorian Internet by Standage and it seemed like this might have been... Read more
Published 8 months ago by Michael M. Ferry
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More About the Author

Tom Standage is digital editor at The Economist, overseeing the magazine's website,, and its smartphone, tablet and e-reader editions. Before that he was business affairs editor, running the back half of the magazine, and he previously served as business editor, technology editor and science correspondent. Tom is also the author of five history books, including "An Edible History of Humanity" (2009), "A History of the World in Six Glasses" (2005), a New York Times bestseller, and "The Victorian Internet" (1998), described by the Wall Street Journal as a "dot-com cult classic". He writes the video-game column for Intelligent Life, The Economist's lifestyle magazine, is a regular commentator on BBC radio, and has written for other publications including the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, the New York Times and Wired. He holds a degree in engineering and computer science from Oxford University, and is the least musical member of a musical family. He is married and lives in London with his wife and children, and is currently working on his next book, on the prehistory of social media.

Amazon Author Rankbeta 

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#49 in Books > History
#49 in Books > History

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