Social Media: 2,000 Years Old And Counting

We’ve been bandying about terms like “social graph” and “digitally enabled, socially connected customers” and extolling all those platforms on which customers interact. It’s as if this all happened overnight; sometimes it sure feels that way.

For those lamenting the pace of change and wishing for the good old days before Reddit approvals, Facebook likes and Klout scores, however, we ask, “When, exactly, was that?” Because as Tom Standage argues in his new book, “Writing on the Wall: Social Media — The First 2,000 Years,” the idea of social media is as old as papyrus.

“[In Cicero’s] time…information circulated through the exchange of letters and other documents which were copied, commented on and shared with others in the form of papyrus rolls. Cicero’s own correspondence…shows that he exchanged letters constantly with his friends elsewhere, keeping them up to date with the latest political machinations, passing on items of interest from others and providing his own commentary and opinions…

“When Cicero or another politician made a noteworthy speech, he could distribute it by making copies available to his close associates, who would read it and pass it on to others. Many more people might then read the speech than had heard it being delivered…Copies also circulated of the acta diurna or state gazette, the original of which was posted on a board in the forum in Rome each day and contained summaries of political debates, proposals for new laws, announcements of births and deaths, the dates of public holidays and other official information.

“With information flitting from one correspondent to another, this informal system enabled information to penetrate to the farthest provinces within a few weeks…The result was that Cicero, along with other members of the Roman elite, was kept informed by a web of contacts—the members of his social circle — all of whom gathered, filtered and distributed information for each other.

“To modern eyes this all seems strangely familiar. Cicero was, to use today’s internet jargon, a participant in a “social media” system: that is, an environment in which people can publish, discuss, recommend and share items of interest within a group of friends and associates, passing noteworthy items from one social circle to another. The Romans did it with papyrus rolls and messengers; today hundreds of millions of people do the same things rather more quickly and easily using Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other internet tools.”

Standage has taken the long view in his book. All the way back to the Roman Empire. And, according to the author,

All this may come as a surprise to modern internet users who assume that today’s media environment is unprecedented. But many of the ways we handle, consume and manipulate information, even in the internet era, build upon habits and conventions that date back centuries.

Everything old is new again indeed.