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Book review: Writing on the Wall by Tom Standage

Students of history will tell you that the development of media falls neatly into two distinct periods – ‘old media’ and ‘new media’ – divided by the Internet in the 1990s.

‘Old media’ was centralised and broadcast to its audience via newspapers, radio and television, whereas ‘new media’ is fragmented and person-to-person.

Tom Standage asserts in his new book Writing on the Wall that the history of media is in fact made up of three periods: ‘really old media’ (51 B.C. to 1833), ‘old media’ (1833 to 1993) and ‘new media’ (1993 onwards).

His view is that ‘really old media’ and ‘new media’ operate on the same social and sharing characteristics and that centralised ‘old media’ was a 150-year or so anomaly.

This is a story that Standage has been telling for the past few months as he completed the book. He entertained the audience at the CIPR Share This Too conference in London and here he is speaking last month at TEDxOxbridge.

Standage has lots of form. He’s the digital editor of The Economist and has brought a fresh perspective to history in previous books such as the History of the World in Six Glasses and An Edible History of Humanity.

Writing on the Wall is a thoroughly researched and enlightening piece of work.

‘Really old media’

Standage guides the reader through history starting with Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero in 51 B.C., explaining applications of media through the ages.

When Cicero made a speech he would publish copies so that anyone that was interested could have it transcribed before passing it on. That sounds a lot like social media powered by manual labour rather than the Internet.

Other notable examples of social media through history include the circulation of letters in the early Christian church, gossipy poetry in the Tudor and Stuart courts, pamphlets courting public opinion during the English Civil War, and pamphlets and local papers that rallied for American Independence.

The list goes on and on and forms the heart of the book.

‘Old media’

Then came the steam printing press.

The Times of London installed a press in 1814 but it didn’t benefit from the potential to expand its audience from 5,000 hand printed copies as it was forced to keep the price artificially high by a stamp duty imposed by the British government

British publishers spent the next 40-years fighting this tax that sought to limit the flow of information to the wealthy elite.

In the US The New York Sun pioneered a new model in 1833. It sought to build a mass audience and attract advertisers by selling copies cheaply.

And so the newspaper business as we know it today was born, followed by radio in the 1900s and, later, television in the 1930s, reaching mass audiences.

‘New media’

Now we’re back to the future. As Standage points out, what the Romans did with papyrus rolls and messengers today hundreds of millions of people do so more quickly and easily with Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other forms of social media.

The Internet has enabled a huge variety of publishing and sharing tools such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, providing global reach and scale. We’re only just beginning to understand the impact of these technologies on society but Standage suggests we’ve much to learn from the past.

Share it like Cicero

I had the chance to review Writing on the Wall after Standage announced an experiment with a nod to Ancient Rome called Share it like Cicero.

He has distributed several galley copies of the book via his blog and has asked recipients to read, annotate and comment on the text, before passing them on to a friend. You can follow conversations about the book via the hashtag #wotw2013.

It’s what Cicero would have done.

Standage is tracking progress over the coming weeks. My copy is in the post to Philip Young at the NEMO project at the University of Lund in Sweden. He’s been kind enough to invite me to speak about my book #BrandVandals at the NEMO conference in October.

If you don’t manage to get your hands on a copy of Writing on the Wall as part of this project it will be published by Bloomsbury next month.

Thumbnail image via Wikimedia with thanks.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.

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