Book Review: Writing on the Wall

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Social media changed everything for communicators, right? If you believe that the last 10 plus years have been the most radical in terms of changes in mass media, then you need to read Tom Standage’s book, “Writing on the Wall: Social Media The First 2000 years.”

It will completely change your perspective.

Standage examines social media “systems” used over the past 2000 years (not a typo!) that resemble the person-to-person habits of sharing that we’ve credited to blogs, Facebook and Twitter.  These systems were every bit as disruptive as today’s media environment, some so controversial that people began talking in code to avoid detection.

In his introduction, Standage sets the stage this way:

All this will come as a surprise to modern Internet users who may assume that today’s social-media environment is unprecedented.  But many of the ways in which we share, consume, and manipulate information, even in the Internet era, build upon habits and conventions that date back centuries.  Today’s social-media users are the unwitting heirs of a rich tradition with surprisingly deep historical roots…it reveals that social media does not merely connect us to each other today — it also links us to the past.

In fact, Standage’s book only gives the mass media as we know it today, (the foundation of which I teach to my community college students) only three brief chapters, explaining that the one-directional forms of mass media that we now call legacy media, are a mere 200-year-old blip on the timeline of social sharing.

What I love about his book is how he brings alive historical forms of social media with amazing primary resources — letters, manuscripts and anecdotes – all of which are savory and relevant.

One of my favorite examples from Writing on the Wall is from England’s Tudor era. Lady Margaret wrote original poems using anagrams and a private code to her “intended” Lord Thomas while both were jailed in the 1500s. The exchanges were written in a book and circulated among a private group for nearly 5 years. It survives today and is called the Devonshire Manuscript.  Standage describes the comments in the margins, the wordplay and how the writers reworked popular poems of the day to pass messages of love and affection, using the book as a secluded social space similar to those used today by groups in social networking sites.

Each chapter covers an era of political and social change and how social sharing played a role. From the Roman Empire with its tradition of publicly-shared letters to how social networks played a role in the American Revolution, this book redefines “new” media.

Photo Credit: Photo by Nan Palmero, used with Creative Commons License. See more of his photos on Flickr.