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Writing on the Wall: Social Media - The First 2,000 Years Kindle Edition
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Top Customer Reviews
I don't contribute actively in social media very often (save the occasional book/product review), but do appreciate its power and importance.
Standage provides a nice overview of how these concepts have appeared universally through the ages and bursts the bubble on the idea that this is a "new" thing for us. It's not exhaustive yet it is inspirational enough to whet one's appetite for more.
If I were to point out any flaws, I'd focus on two key areas:
- bias to Western culture. There's no reference to Asian culture or to African culture. There's no way that either continent stood silent through the eons.
- I expected to see some discussion of Emojis and how these compare to petroglyphs and hieroglyphics through the ages.
I'd easily recommend this for anyone keen on taking a look back as they consider the potential of emerging technologies. It's an interesting journey to see how innovation draws from honouring our longstanding traditions.
Writing on the Wall documents aspects of social interaction through the ages starting its first analysis with Roman Civilization. The author describes how messengers constantly delivered messages back and forth among the elite to keep each other abreast of the social and political spheres they operated within. The style was conversational and scribes for brevity had systems to efficiently condense common phrases to transcribe more efficiently. The author moves onto the origin of Protestantism with Martin Luther and the use of the printing press to disseminate information via pamphlet. The use of the printing press in spreading information was instrumental in igniting popular discontent with the corruption in the ecclesiastical system. The author discusses how in England poetry and clever and subtle rhymes were a means of earning a reputation and a source of creative outlet for the better educated. The author then discusses the role of the coffee house in the enlightenment and the migration from the social atmosphere of an ale house in which some of the darker aspects of social interaction happened to the coffee house facilitated lively debate and cross polination among intellectuals. The coffeehouse acted as a level playing field for all those who could afford the simple beveridge. The author moved on to the newspaper and how it spread throughout the US and provided for lively political commentary. The stamp tax catalysed a backlash from the media who would be directly affected and were an example of how again, the printing press was a strong force to enable dissemination of information. In the US having multiple points of view was applauded with the hope that the best explanations and reasons would be appreciated, in France papers were used as tools to attack ones enemies. The author shows how public media can be a force for informational dispersion as well as a force for creating chaos and paranoia. The author moves on to how the radio was used and the TV as well. The radio being more peer to peer initially as the cost of being a reciever and a transmitter is not particularly different but after specific incidents where individuals were seen to be interfering with state business, radio transmission went into a more regulated environment dominated by RCA (in the US) and BBC in the UK. The use of centralized media was instrumental in the spread of propoganda and controlling society (as in germany) as well as a medium to advertise, as in the US. The author then takes us into the modern world with the internet and the rebirth of peer to peer communication.
Writing on the Wall is a lively history of ways in which people have interacted through history. Peer to peer dominated social media interactions and marketing is becoming the norm again after a long period in which centralized media was the norm but in reading this work it is clear that this form of interaction has been the norm in the past as well. I enjoyed reading this, its definitely not all new- the ability to publish different points of view as a consequence of the printing press is pretty obvious to most, but the authors discussion of how that medium was used in different ways in different times gives good perspective. Definitely worth reading.
Many now believe that social media has democratized media and communications. This I believe is largely untrue. For a short time, in the early 2000’s, social media may have delivered on the promise of conversation but it missed the opportunity. All too quickly it became big business and fell into the hands of traditional marketers, advertisers and media professionals who were only comfortable with what they knew best and that is control. As a result, social media is now little different from radio, print and television.
It is blaringly loud, aggravatingly intrusive, and only episodically relevant. It is a channel of communication that flows one way like a fire hose. People are tricked into believing their posts, tweets and likes give them power. In reality, they are pinging and sharing what a small handful of people want them to. It is more "what you get is what you share" than "what you share is what you get".
Social media is a parlor trick. It only gives the appearance of being highly personal and individualized. What could have been “the masses’ media” is mass media plain and simple.
This is a big miss in the book as is the lack of commentary around content. Standage talks of means of communications but not substance. Were The Reformation and Arab Spring a result of media or the arguments they advanced? Obviously, both are to be credited but I did not get the sense the author placed the same weight. I am not sure how to credit this given his role at The Economist.
Writing on the Wall is incredibly well researched but I glazed and passed over several parts starting with the analysis into primate behavior and discussions of how the neocortex works. I thoroughly enjoyed the chapter on poetry as a means of social media. This was original and fun. Though London and Paris’ coffee houses have been referenced a great deal recently to explain democratic communication and idea dissemination, Standage covers them in a human and fresh way. I, too, am referencing them in an upcoming book so hope people do not tire of the subject.
Though the titling throughout was clever: “New Post from Martin Luther” and “The Facebook of the Tudor Court”, Writing on the Wall is really quite dense and linear. Standage does a fine job of convincing one that there are clear antecedents in our history of social media but falls short of relating them to present day. There is lineage but no meaningful connection. After the first three chapters it grew repetitive and laborious.
It would have flowed better if the linkage or message was, “progress is threatening”. He provides such examples as Greeks being suspicious of the printed word over the spoken. Socrates believed that writing undermined the need to remember things and so weakens the mind. The same complaint is made today of Google and spellcheck. That may have perked it up. In summary, the premise is supportable, the history is there but the relevance fell short. Still it contributed to the discussion and readers who want similar efforts can look to:
Nothing New: An Irreverent History of Storytelling and Social Media by Muhammad Yasin, Ryan Brock
Histories of Social Media by Jonathan Salem Baskin
Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet by Asa Briggs and Peter Burke
Standage demonstrates the veracity of his thesis well, but it is thin grounds for a book length work.
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