Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Book Review: Writing on the Wall--Social Media The First 2,000 Years by Tom Standage

Writing on the Wall by Tom Standage did what I always hope a history will do. It provided me with new details and insights about an interesting part of life. There were no particularly earth-shattering ideas, but I appreciated Standage's long, careful look at the past and his way of tying long-ago people to the modern day. It's a very calming book, essentially, pointing out that people have spent more than a few centuries finding informal ways to communicate and that, for most of that time, other people have worried that this informality would ruin the established order.

Standage starts Writing on the Wall with Rome in the first century BC, as Cicero and his friends exchange an interlocking series of letters that were replied to, commented on, and copied and sent to others. These were neither private (from one individual to another) nor public (newspapers for all), but social, intended for a specific group of people, but with varying likelihood of spreading further. He also moves forward to 79 AD, in Pompeii, where preserved walls demonstrate that people employed a literal writing on the walls to communicate with one another. Other stops through history include the Reformation where printed pamphlets circulated widely and helped spread the controversy, exchanges of ideas via poetry in the Elizabethan court, seventeenth century coffee houses, , social media in the American and French Revolutions, the social network of telegraph operators(1), and of radio operators later. Two later chapters deal with the mass media, which Standage describes as "The opposite of social media": Radio, television, and mass-produced newspapers marked the rise of the professional newsman, the person who arbitrated the news for everyone else, and the closing out of shared commentary. The worldwide web, with its blogs, newsboards, and social media sites marks the historical norm, when news is shared among friends and passed on with commentary and explanation among those likely to be interested.

Despite mentions of an out-of-control social media situation during the French Revolution, a time in which many pamphlet writers were calling for one another's deaths and were inventing slanders wholesale, Standage is largely optimistic about social media. Standage counters the worries about today's social media by pointing out that people have had the same concern over earlier iterations and new inventions, and by pointing out in his first chapter that we are wired to be social. themes and worries of new inventions. The telephone, for example, brought up fears that people would stay inside and use the machine rather than talking to one another. One writer, William Powells, worried about the impact of social media on his family now suggests family time watching TV together--a complete reversal, Standage notes, of earlier generation's fears that the television would destroy family life.

If I had one wish, it would be for more. After the first century BC and a look at early Christian communication as social media, the book becomes heavily Eurocentric. Chapter 3, for example, mentions that the Islamic world had "preserved and extended" the "knowledge of the ancients." (49). Given the content of the book, I can't help but wonder: Were they doing it socially? Did they circulate letters or manuscripts with letters in the margins? Similarly, the detailed chapter on the exchange of poetry in the time of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I left me wondering: What were other courts doing? I know just enough about the ancient Chinese court (which is to say, not very much at all), to wonder about their exchanges. Later still, the focus narrows to Europe and America, with a heavy emphasis on England and America (France gets to star as an example of social media gone berserk in the French Revolution). Granted, I am not sure how Standage could have done this without making a book at least twice as long, but I'd have liked to see at least a nod to the rest of the world as time went on, or an admission that the book was limited in scope to keep its length manageable.

As it is, it covers an impressive range and time span with an admirable attention to detail, and I learned a great deal through it.

I highly recommend it to anyone curious about social media, history in general, or focused histories.

(1) Covered more fully in The Victorian Internet, also by Tom Standage and also good.

Disclosure: ARC provided by the publisher at my request. A positive review was not specified, and all views presented are my own.

Publication Details
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
ISBN: 1620402831 (ISBN13: 9781620402832)

Other Reviews
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  1. On the list. I love this sort of nonfic, and I'm always glad when you recommend a good one!

    1. Always glad to add to someone's TBR pile!

      I also highly recommend The Victorian Internet, which ended up getting missed on my review circuit but which is very good as well.

      I still have a couple of Standage's books left on my list, but I do plan on reading through them!