writing on the wall coverWriting on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years by Tom Standage

My rough summary: This is an informal history of peer-to-peer communication, hypothesising that we coped just fine without mass media for about 2,000 years until industrialisation, newspapers and broadcasting centralised everything – but now, thankfully, we are coming out of that blip in human history.

Some quotes:

  • Socrates complains that writing undermines the need to remember things and weakens the mind, creating “forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.” [CC note: I love how this suspicion of how people are being adversely affected by the ‘technology’ of written language portrays Socrates as a Baroness Greenfield of the ancient world]
  • [of telegraph operators in late 19th century] Such was the sense of online camaraderie that some operators in remote places preferred to commune with their friends on the wires than with the local people. Thomas Stevens, a British telegraph operator stationed in Persia, shunned the local community in favour of telegraphic interaction with other Britons. “How companionable it was, that bit of civilization in a barbarous country,” he wrote of his telegraphic friends, most of whom he had never met and were thousands of miles away.
  • But during 1922 the number of broadcasting stations in the United States had grown from fewer than twenty to nearly six hundred. “The art itself is advancing very fast,” the report observed, “and the ultimate effect of broadcasting upon the economic, social, religious, political, educational life of the country and the world, is comparable only with that of the discovery of printing 500 years ago.”
  • After a one-hundred-and-fifty-year hiatus during which the person-to-person aspect of media was overshadowed by centralized mass media operating on a broadcast model, the pendulum has swung back.

How I’ve used this book:  I was already very taken with the idea that User Generated Content (UGC) was ‘taking over’ – this book supported that idea in general and gave historical evidence for it. So (as with many others here) I’ve mostly used it for droning at people about my pet subject!