Tom Standage, the digital editor of the Economist, gave his keynote on ‘The Future of Social Media: A Historical Perspective’ at DrupalCon London on Wednesday, 24th September. According to Tom, there are two kinds of social media: the horizontal kind, where people circulate things amongst themselves, and the vertical kind, which is more akin to marketing messages being passed down to the consumer. Today, it’s the horizontal kind that is more widely accepted as ‘social media’. However, this isn’t a new concept. In fact, it dates back to the Romans. In fact, until the mass media was the brought in in the 19th century, the only way to share information was socially. People would literally have to tell other people through writing and conversation, making the distribution of information inherently social.
As an example, St Paul was one of the best practicioners of Roman social media. He wrote open letters (the epistles) that were disseminated to churches around the country. These were then copied and shared further, making them even more social. Interestingly, we’re still using the tools of Roman social media, including our current alphabet. Even inherently technical terms like ‘scrolling’, now rather key to the way we consume and share information, has it’s origins in Roman language.
If we move forward to the reformation, Martin Luther took things further, using the printing press to create cheap pamphlets that could be distributed easily. You could even say that Martin Luther was the master of Retweetable content centuries before everyone else.
Later, around the time of the English Civil War, England was one of the first countries to experience what was almost a ‘free press’, thanks to the printing press. However, with this came the first time there was a battle for public opinion amongst the pamphleteers. When one person would distribute a pamphlet on an event, another would issue a rebuttal by another pamphlet and so on. Thus began the first flame war. However, with lots of people giving their ideas and opinions, people could discover the truth for themselves.
Next up we have the origins of the open source movement, with scientific journals and discussions within coffee houses. People testing ideas, and discussing them in an open and free environment, is the basis for not only scientific method, but also concepts like open source. In fact, coffee houses are the origins of many large institutions. Jonathan’s coffee house, a coffee house where traders met, turned into the London Stock Exchange. Similarly, Lloyds had it’s origins in a coffee house where traders met.
There have been many cultures through the centuries that have thrived using social media through sharing, commenting, and copying. According to Tom, the moment it all went wrong was with the invention of the steam press and the launch of the New York Sun. The problem is that with mass media, it all becomes a one way medium. Journalists and editors completely control the message that is spread en masse. The internet undermines this vertical style of media, with the horizontal style of old school social media finally coming back into play.
In the future, the internet as it stands today will speed up innovation within science and business, just as we saw the massive increase in the speed of innovation with coffee houses. Basically, we are reinvigorating the way that media used to be after mass media killed it.