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Writing on the Wall: Social Media - The First 2,000 Years Paperback – 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
Tom Standage is digital editor at the Economist and editor in chief of Economist.com. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller A History of the World in 6 Glasses and The Victorian Internet, described by the Wall Street Journal as a “dot-com cult classic.” Standage has written for numerous publications, including Wired, the New York Times, and the Guardian. He lives in London with his wife and children. Visit his website at www.tomstandage.com.
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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.
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.
Standage demonstrates the veracity of his thesis well, but it is thin grounds for a book length work.