Writing on the Wall: Social Media the First 2000 Years


Writing on the Wall:
Social Media the First 2000 Years
Tom Standage
| published September 4, 2014 |

Book review by R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Facebook recently celebrated its tenth birthday. The multibillion dollar company, founded in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg, has grown to be one of the most valuable corporations in the world, and its sole product is information and data.

There is no drilling for oil, no laying of pipelines, no ships upon the sea, and no mining of precious metals. There are no bottled or canned drinks, no assembly lines making cars and trucks, no factory churning out toaster ovens, shower curtains or computer components. Just data—your data, the data your several hundred closest “friends,” along with the data of roughly 1.3 billion other people around the globe who use Facebook. And unlike other multi-billion dollar industries, from Coca-Cola to Microsoft, from Taco Bell to Koch Industries, Facebook spends almost no money advertising its service.

Further, Facebook has no rivals, at least not in the traditional sense. Coca-Cola competes with PepsiCo, Wal-Mart competes with Target, NBC News competes with ABC News. Facebook’s last real competitor, My Space, faded into relative obscurity more than five years ago. There are others out there, like Tumblr, Google + and Linked-In, but Facebook’s predominance over its quasi-competitors makes any comparison lopsided in the extreme. For the vast majority of computer users and smart phone users, the ubiquitous Facebook is a tool as important as one’s wristwatch or ones credit card. For some, it may be more important.

But is Facebook a game-changer in the long history of human interaction and communication?

A new book by Tom Standage, Writing on the Wall: Social Media, the First 2000 Years, argues that Facebook is merely one in a long series of human inventions designed to make the spread of news and the dissemination of information easier and more reliable. Facebook may be more user-friendly and more democratic in its power to engage, but it is a logical—indeed inevitable—merger of technology with the human need to inform and be informed.

Highly readable and instantly engaging, Standage’s book starts with an explanation of the ancient and entirely human belief in sharing news and information and telling stories about the human condition. At the core of social media is the more primitive concept of the social pack or societal unit, which served a useful and, as it turns out, essential service for its members: food, shelter, protection, family equilibrium, grooming. Facebook, in which the average user has roughly 130 friends, replicates with eerie precision the social networks of humans even thousands of years ago, when the average hunter-gather clan would top off at about 145 to 150 people. This is known as the Dunbar number, and it indicates the largest size of any community in which everyone could know with some intimacy everyone else in the clan, for above this number some people would be strangers to one another. Further, physical grooming was replaced with social grooming, in the form of news, gossip, storytelling, and social interactions designed to vet and filter information.

For this reason, Standage argues that the human brain is hardwired for social networking, with tens of thousands of years of fine-tuning all forms of direct and indirect communication. From cave drawings to stone tablets, from early hieroglyphics and the first systematic written languages, humans have sought to find the most useful ways to pass along critical information, as well as develop tools to develop ways to filter information for reliability.

Filtering and vetting information becomes of great importance as human history progresses and languages become more complex. And reliability of news and data also becomes critically important along the way as well, as humans must learn to sort out disinformation from truth, officialdom’s propaganda from balanced reporting and objective evidence. Think of Russia’s seemingly absurd campaigns of disinformation regarding the crash of Malaysian Airlines MH-17 over eastern Ukraine; or, likewise, its recent incursions into the Ukraine despite months of telling the world that vast military movements near the border were simply Army exercises.

Standage traces the lineage of mass communication and interpersonal dispatches from the time of the Greeks and the Romans through the invention of the printing press. The ancient Greeks invented and perfected outdoor graffiti as a form of interpersonal communication—writing on walls and creating newsfeeds—two and a half millennia before Facebook. Cicero used papyrus documents to present news and reviews, then, asked those who came in contact with the information to add their own commentaries and interpretations. Among Julius Caesar’s various contributions to social media: the development and founding of a prototype newspaper—hand-written, but copied by involved citizens and urged upon those traveling within the Roman lands. Today’s iPads, Kindle readers, Nooks and other devices—dazzling though their abilities are—nevertheless bear a striking resemblance to early clay and wax tablets, which were carried by hand or in bags.

Social media—as we understand it—is not new. It represents merely a thread of human interaction embedded deeply in our desire to understand our world, our community, and to connect to those closest to us. What has so radically altered the template has been technology, a tool which has allowed billions of people worldwide to connect using universal tools on computers and smartphones. What was once information spread and disseminated by hand, face-to-face, or in small groups—much the way the word of early Christianity was spread to hundreds, then thousands, then millions, starting with only a few dozen people—can now be sent to thousands within seconds. When Martin Luther sought to repudiate what he saw as a sclerotic, even corrupt officialdom in the church, he used nothing more elaborate than a list posted on a door—which in turn was copied, then copied again, by hand, in what amounted to a declaration gone viral.

Politics has often played a part in social media. The pamphlet and the handbill were early forms of proselytizing political views and societal struggles. Printed handouts were sometimes decisive in the cultural and political changes which swept France, Russia, Great Britain and the United States—thus literacy moves hand-in-hand, with political awareness and social advancement. Centuries before Dakota or Starbucks—with the Wi-Fi and the smartphone charging stations—coffee houses were used as a place to hold forth, compare ideas and ideologies, challenge conventions, and foment revolutionary ideas. Like the internet, Facebook, and Twitter, coffee houses were accused of breaking down social skills and encouraging an institutionalized form of wasted time.

In short, are our social media platforms—Facebook, Google Plus, Linked-In, Twitter, Pinterest—so radically different from the way humans have engaged for thousands of years? Or are they simply the logical merger of digital technology with the human need to connect and share.

Taken as a whole, Standage’s book is highly readable and moves very smoothly. Its only fault—minor, to be sure—is that some chapters seem to belabor his point well after he has made the point quite effectively. Still, it’s easy to overlook this indulgence since he tells the story of social media so well and with such striking comparisons. A fast, fluid, addictive read; and more relevant than a dozen other books on the great technological and business disruptors of our day.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Shrines of Technology; book review by R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; September 29, 2013.

Beware the Siren Servers; book review by R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; September 3, 2013.