Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Writing on the Wall

Writing on the Wall is a good read: well-written, entertaining, and informative. The point that the author is making could be summed up in this quote by Robin Dunbar: "Without gossip, there would be no society."

Mass media are a relatively recent phenomenon and only about 150 years old. Before that we had, as Tom Standage argues, social-media ecosystems. The first of them were the Roman media. "... the fortunes of Rome's vast territories depended to an inordinate extent on the personal ties between members of the Roman elite. Social gossip and political news were intertwined." Information was exchanged in person or by letters. There were also books but "no publishers, no copyright, and very few booksellers. Instead, books circulated from one reader to the next through recommendation and copying." During the Reformation, there were pamphlets, news ballads, and woodcuts. Later on, at the Tudor court, it was poetry that was used to communicate. "The circulation of poems in manuscript form provided a gossipy back channel behind the outward formality and strict rules of court life, and a conveniently ambiguous way to make political points." And then there were manuscript copies of speeches and parliamentary reports that circulated widely. And, again quite some years later, there were the coffeehouses, and ... in short: humans are wired for sharing and they do so with the means at their disposal.

When printing was invented and began to dominate the exchange of information, the agenda-setting became concentrated in the hands of a few. Eventually, the owners of radio and television took over and thus acquired a factual monopoly on the spread of news. This monopoly is now being broken up again by the internet. So back to the roots then? Not really for the exchange of social information in modern societies is hardly comparable to the one of ancient times. Nowadays, "various forms of media make possible gossip at a distance", to be physically present is not required anymore.

In Tom Standage's view, television has become "the most pervasive medium ever. The couch potato, vegetating in front of the flickering screen, emerged as a cultural cliché. Watching television, an entirely one-way, passive experience, became the very definition of inaction. Only sleeping involves less effort. The broadcast model considers the role of the radio listener and television viewer to be merely that of a passive consumer. This is as far as it is possible from a media system in which people create, distribute, share, and rework information and exchange it with each other. It is the opposite of social media."

Writing on the Wall provides a helpful perspective in regards to the role that social media play in triggering protests and revolutions. "Historically, it is clear that social media, in the form of pamphlets, letters, and local newspapers, played a role in the Reformation, and in the American and French Revolution. But it is also clear, from a distance, that its main function was to reveal and synchronize public opinion and expose the extent of the opposition to the incumbent regime. In each case, simmering resentments meant that revolution would have happened sooner or later anyway; the use of social media merely helped the process along." Agreed, yet this description of the impact of social media could equally be used to describe the role of mass media that produce often not more than loud noise that accompanies events that would also have taken place without them.

Tom Standage
Writing on the Wall
Social Media - The First 2,000 Years
Bloomsbury Publishing, London, New Delhi, New York and Sydney

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