Writing on the Wall: Social Media - The First 2,000 Years Paperback – Illustrated, September 16, 2014
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“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
About the Author
- Publisher : Bloomsbury USA; Illustrated edition (September 16, 2014)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 288 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1620402858
- ISBN-13 : 978-1620402856
- Item Weight : 8.8 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.5 x 0.79 x 8.2 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #397,266 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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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
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.
Top reviews from other countries
It's a neat piece of insight which doesn't just give us a new way of looking at the past, it also shows us how lessons from the past help us predict even the most modern of technological developments.
What expands Ton Standage's work to a full book is the chapters on the Romans, Martin Luther and so on. If you are not familiar with these parts of history, they make for a great set of summaries which add a persuasive weight of evidence to Standage's case.
If you are familiar with these parts of history already, then the chapters are a little staid - they are good, competent summaries of what happened but don't have a style or set of insights that raise them beyond the many other existing accounts of such periods that exist already. Once, for example, you have the point about 16th century poetry used to be passed round, commented on and amended in a way similar to modern social sharing, the chapter does not offer much for anyone already familiar with the basics of 16th century history.
But for most readers, that existing breadth of knowledge does not apply, and the weight of examples makes the book rather more persuasive, if a little less lively, than a Malcolm Gladwell volume.
However, what I found the most interesting was not so much the idea that the social nature of media hasn't changed (except recently) it was the fact that the reaction of society to changes in media is really what hasn't changed. Every time of new form of information sharing emerges - especially one which allows greater levels of participation - the old elites raise the same protests: the fact that the new participants are in some way unqualified to participate, or that participation is generally frivolous, time-wasting, or damaging to mankind's overall well-being. Of course, what is usually the only thing damaged is said elite's ability to run things in a way that has made them an elite in the first place.
Personally I don't entirely buy into the book's main premise. For example, I think the desire to focus on the social (i.e. interpersonal) nature of communication before mass media leads to an underestimation of the impact of printing. Printing was much more than pamphleting - albeit pamphlets were the main printed expressions of personal / political ideas. Likewise this focus may cause the importance of industrialised printing and the growth of the mass media to be over-emphasised. In reality, the elites have always been in control because the means of distributing information (be they slave messengers or steam printing presses) were always expensive.
This is the respect in which what we now call social media is genuinely new. For the first time in history the ability to share information is available to everyone (and not just people, objects can now share information). Information has been liberated from a restrictive means of distribution (i.e. media) and this is not just spelling the end of mass media, it is spelling the death of media itself. This has the potential to change societies in ways in which we can barely imagine. Rather than changing the institutions in which we place trust or authority, we are changing the nature of trust or authority itself so that it no longer lives in any form of institution (newspaper, bank, university, government), rather it lives in forms of transparent processes. It also creates a world which is no longer driven by just information, but by data - a language that no human can ever speak.
However, this is just my opinion (see chapters 2, 6 and 8 of an ebook Social Media and The Three Per Cent Rule: how to succeed by not talking to 97 per cent of your audience I have published, if you will excuse the plug) and it doesn't damage the value of the book and the fascinating insights and observations that emerge from what is, essentially, a review of the history of media.
I found some of his anecdotes a bit dull and his general style is rather earnest. Nonetheless, it
As a reluctant convert to Kindle I have to say that the convenience is fantastic but it still isn't paper though is it?