Writing on the Wall: Social Media - The First 2,000 Years

Writing on the Wall: Social Media - The First 2,000 Years

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

Writing on the Wall: Social Media - The First 2,000 Years

by Tom Standage


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From the bestselling author of A History of the World in 6 Glasses, the story of social media from ancient Rome to the Arab Spring and beyond.

Social media is anything but a new phenomenon. From the papyrus letters that Cicero and other Roman statesmen used to exchange news, to the hand-printed tracts of the Reformation and the pamphlets that spread propaganda during the American and French revolutions, the ways people shared information with their peers in the past are echoed in the present.

Standage reminds us how historical social networks have much in common with modern social media. The Catholic Church's dilemmas in responding to Martin Luther's attacks are similar to those of today's large institutions in responding to criticism on the Internet, for example, and seventeenth-century complaints about the distractions of coffeehouses mirror modern concerns about social media. Invoking figures from Thomas Paine to Vinton Cerf, co-inventor of the Internet, Standage explores themes that have long been debated, from the tension between freedom of expression and censorship to social media's role in spurring innovation and fomenting revolution. Writing on the Wall draws on history to cast provocative new light on today's social media and encourages debate and discussion about how we'll communicate in the future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620402856
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 09/16/2014
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 622,963
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 5.50(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

About The Author
Tom Standage is digital editor at the Economist and editor in chief of Economist.com. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller A History of the World in 6 Glasses and The Victorian Internet, described by the Wall Street Journal as a “dot-com cult classic.” Standage has written for numerous publications, including Wired, the New York Times, and the Guardian. He lives in London with his wife and children. Visit his website at www.tomstandage.com.

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Social Media—The First 2,000 Years



Copyright © 2013 Tom Standage
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62040-283-2


The Ancient Foundations of Social Media: Why Humans Are Wired for Sharing

Without gossip, there would be no society.

—Robin Dunbar

How long ago did you last check Facebook? There's a good chance it was earlier today. The world's most popular social-networking site has more than one billion users, half of whom access it daily and a quarter of whom check it five or more times a day. Accessing social-networking sites is now the single most popular online activity worldwide: four out of five Internet users, or around 1.4 billion people, use social sites of one kind or another to post status updates, share photos and links, leave comments, and engage in discussions. Collectively, such sites account for a quarter of all time spent online globally, and more than 40 percent in some countries.

Facebook is the current leader of a huge international pack that includes Twitter, Google+, Tumblr, and LinkedIn, to name only a few companies that, like Facebook, are based in the United States. There are also strong players in other countries whose names may be less familiar: Qzone, Tencent Weibo, and Sina Weibo in China, Cyworld and me2day in South Korea, Orkut in Brazil, VKontakte and Odnoklassniki in Rus sia, Tuenti in Spain, and so on. Such is Facebook's dominance, however, that it alone accounts for one in seven minutes spent online around the world. Each month people collectively spend around three hundred billion minutes, or the equivalent of six hundred thousand years, on Facebook. That is not bad for a website that was only founded in 2004, and only opened its doors to nonacademic users in 2006.

The decline of MySpace, the previous industry leader, is a reminder that Facebook's continued dominance is by no means assured. But whoever is on top, it is clear that social networking sites have become a routine part of daily life for hundreds of millions of people, and an almost universal aspect of Internet use. Young people were the earliest adopters, but since 2010 the over-fifty-fives have caught up. In Britain and America, social sites of some sort are used by 98 percent of all Internet users, and the figure is above 90 percent in many other countries. The young tend to use social sites mostly to communicate with their friends; the old to stay in touch with their families.

The various social sites work in slightly different ways. Some require social connections between users to be approved by both parties, while others do not. Some assume that items posted are public, while others allow items to be shared only with specific individuals or groups. Some sites are intended for the sharing of particular types of content: Flickr for photos, SoundCloud for sound clips, YouTube for video. What they all have in common, however, is that they allow information to be shared along social networks with friends or followers (who may then share items in turn), and they enable discussion to take place around such shared information. Users of such sites do more than just passively consume information, in other words: they can also create it, comment on it, share it, discuss it, and even modify it. The result is a shared social environment and a sense of membership in a distributed community. What makes doing all this so enjoyable and compelling, and therefore so popular?

The answer has several components, all of which have deep behavioral and historical roots. The first, and most fundamental, is that as primates, humans are inherently social animals. Primate brains appear to have evolved specifically to process social information, to enable primates to function more effectively in groups. Second, one of the main ways humans assess and maintain their positions within social networks is by exchanging information with and about others (i.e., gossip). Through the exchange of gossip, individuals can advertise their status within the group and demonstrate their expertise, trustworthiness, and suitability as an ally or mate. Humans are, in short, built to form networks with others and to exchange information with them. The third component, media technology, starting with the emergence of writing, enables literate humans to extend this exchange of information across time and space to include people who are not physically present. The Internet, with its instant, global reach, does this particularly effectively, allowing users to share information with unprecedented ease. But it is by no means the first technology to have supported such a social-media environment; it is merely the most recent and most efficient way that humans have found to scratch a prehistoric itch.

The compelling nature of social media, then, can be traced back in part to the evolution of the social brain, as monkeys and other primates evolved over the past thirty-five million years; in part to the exchange of gossip following the emergence of human language, around one hundred thousand years ago; and in part to the origins of writing, around five thousand years ago. These are the three ancient foundations on which the social sharing of media, whether using papyrus scrolls in Roman times or the Internet today, has rested over the past two millennia. Let us consider each in turn.


There is something unusual about primates in general, and humans in particular. Compared with other animals, they have strikingly large brains relative to their bodies. Moreover, most of the extra brain volume is devoted to one part of the brain in particular: the neocortex, which is involved in higher functions such as spatial reasoning, sensory perception, and conscious thought. In most mammals the neocortex accounts for 30 to 40 percent of brain volume, but the proportion is over 65 percent in many primates, and 80 percent in humans. What is this large neocortex for?

One possibility is that primates evolved larger brains to enable them to use more complex tools, or to improve their ability to solve problems when searching for food, by doing things like cracking open nuts or extracting termites from their nests. The problem with this theory is that some primates with relative small neocortices (such as the aye-aye, a type of lemur found in Madagascar) display such "extractive foraging" behavior, while others with much larger neocortices (such as macaques) do not. And many nonprimates with much smaller neocortices, such as crows, are capable of solving complex problems. So that cannot be what the neocortex is for.

Another theory is that the large neocortex might have evolved to allow primates to build larger mental maps of their surroundings, to improve their ability to find food. But there turns out to be no correlation between neocortex volume and the range over which primates forage, or the average distance they travel each day. Nor do fruit-eating primates, which must constantly keep track of dispersed, short-lived supplies of food, have larger neocortices than leaf-eaters. So the neocortex was evidently not evolved for mapping the physical environment, either.

The odd thing is that all primates, not just those that use tools or solve complex problems, have disproportionately large brains. A large brain is expensive to develop and maintain. An adult human brain accounts for 2 percent of body mass, on average, but consumes around 20 percent of total energy intake. So there must something valuable that primates do that requires lots of extra mental processing capacity.

Along with their large brains, another distinguishing feature of primates is their social nature: they live in groups and have unusually complex social systems. They can form coalitions with their peers, for example, and are capable of deliberate deception, which requires the ability to hypothesize about another individual's view of the world. Living in a group is safer than living alone, because there are more eyes to spot predators and more hands to fend off rivals. But individual members must be able to balance their own needs with those of the group as a whole, rather than just looking out for themselves. Group members have to cooperate with others, understanding and anticipating their needs, while also establishing and managing their own positions within the ever-shifting pattern of alliances within the group.

In primates, these alliances are maintained through a process known as social grooming, which is carried out in pairs or small subgroups called coalitions. At its simplest level, this involves removing insects, parasites, or dirt from another individual's fur. But primates spend far more time grooming than is necessary for purely hygienic reasons: for some species, as much as 20 percent of their waking hours. They do so in part because grooming is a pleasurable activity. Being groomed causes the release of beta-endorphins, which are natural opiates produced by the brain, resulting in a lower heart rate, a reduction in nervous behavior such as scratching, and a pleasant sense of relaxation. After being groomed, an individual will usually return the favor. Primates use social grooming to build strong bonds with a few other members of their group. They can also send social signals through the choices they make about which individuals they groom, how long they do it for, and which other individuals they allow to watch.

The time spent grooming is a worthwhile investment, because members of a grooming coalition will then support each other in several ways. They may gently steer a member of their coalition away from rivals in the wider group in order to minimize stress. If an individual is threatened by another group member, members of his grooming coalition will come to his aid. An individual can then face down an adversary, provided he has powerful enough allies to call upon. Group members may switch their allegiance from one coalition to another within the group if they believe it will improve their access to food, mating partners, or other resources. The constant interplay between grooming coalitions helps resolve and prevent conflicts, knitting the group as a whole together and making all its members safer from predators.

But tracking the relationships and alliances within the group, and evaluating the risks and rewards of aiding others when conflict arises, requires a lot of brainpower. In particular, it requires primates to theorize about how other members of their group feel toward each other and what their desires or intentions might be as a result. The larger the group, the more mental processing capacity is needed to keep track of the growing web of relationships. According to the "social-brain" theory, it was this need to analyze relationships within social networks, in order to support larger and therefore safer groups, that drove the evolution of larger and larger primate brains.

The theory is supported by the striking correlation, across a range of primate species, between neocortex size (as a percentage of overall brain volume) and group size, something that was first pointed out in 1992 by Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist now at the University of Oxford. In howler monkeys, for example, the average group size is eight and the neocortex accounts for 65 percent of total brain volume. For proboscis monkeys, the group size is fourteen and the neocortex volume is 67 percent; for capuchin monkeys, the figures are eighteen and 70 percent; for macaques, forty and 72 percent; for baboons, fifty-one and 73 percent; for chimpanzees, fifty-four and 76 percent. The fact that group size is strongly correlated with neocortex volume suggests that the primate brain is indeed a primarily social organ.

Further evidence for the social-brain theory comes from studies that compare neocortex size with deception rates in primates. Monkeys who discover a tasty food source, for example, may keep other members of their group away by feigning a lack of interest. And a young baboon about to be reprimanded by his mother may leap up and scan the horizon, tricking the rest of his troop into worrying that a rival troop is approaching and using this distraction to avoid punishment. Frequency of deception also turns out to be closely correlated with neocortex volume, supporting the idea that the benefit of a larger neocortex in primates is that it allows more elaborate social analysis and manipulation. Human brains are social brains, tuned to analyze the shifting intentions and allegiances of friends and rivals within a group. Our brains were literally made for social networking.


How does all this apply to modern humans? Unlike other primates, we no longer live in small, roaming groups, and we do not spend hours each day picking parasites out of our friends' hair. Yet the modern equivalents of the social groups in which primate brains evolved, and the grooming behavior that bound them together, can be found right under our noses. When Dunbar analyzed the brain sizes and group sizes for apes he concluded that, given the size of the human neocortex, the average group size for humans should be 148, which he rounded to 150. This number, which has become known as the "Dunbar number," does indeed seem to recur frequently in human societies. It is the average population of a hunter-gatherer clan, of the earliest farming settlements in the ancient Near East, and of many villages recorded in the Domesday Book, a survey carried out in En gland in 1086.

More fundamentally it is, Dunbar believes, the largest group size in which it is possible for everyone to know everyone else. Above that size, some people will be strangers to others. It is therefore the maximum number of people with whom it is possible to have a reciprocal personal relationship: you know them well enough that they would come to your aid if needed, and you would do the same for them. This may explain why the Hutterites, a community of Christians who live in rural communes, have long chosen to split their communities when they exceed 150 people. They argue that maintaining order in a group any larger than that requires a police force; but below the 150-person limit, order can be maintained by peer pressure alone, because everyone knows each other. The Dunbar number is also the typical size of a military company, which generally includes between 120 and 180 individuals. A company in which everyone knows everyone else is a much more effective fighting unit.

The vast majority of Facebook users also turn out to have between 120 and 130 friends. Of course, some Facebook users have collected many more online "friends" than that. But they are more likely to be casual contacts than genuine friends. Most people, Dunbar's research has found, have five intimate real-world friends (akin to the members of a grooming coalition), and another ten close friends, within their larger network of 150. Interaction on Facebook (in the form of regular comments and messages) is similarly concentrated within a core group of intimates, with an average of seven other people for male users and ten people for female users. This core group is the digital equivalent of a grooming coalition.

But for humans, grooming is no longer a primarily physical activity. Instead, at some point in prehistory humans shifted away from physical forms of grooming and began to groom each other in another way: through speech, and specifically the exchange of "social information," or gossip, about other members of their social group. As with physical grooming, taking the time to have a chat with someone is a way to establish or strengthen a social bond. It also demonstrates the existence of that bond to others. But speech has three big advantages over physical forms of grooming. It allows grooming of more than one person at a time, while chatting in a small group. Grooming can also be carried out while performing another activity, such as eating, foraging for food, or resting. And grooming via speech, in the form of the exchange of gossip, enables people to find out about events within their social circle that they did not witness directly. This provides more information on which to base judgments about whether someone is trustworthy or not. And by passing on information selectively it is possible to manipulate one person's opinion of another. People can also form judgments about someone's trustworthiness by evaluating the accuracy of the information he or she passes on about others. Gossip is an extraordinarily rich source of social intelligence, both about the person speaking and about whoever is being discussed. And because our brains are wired to process just this kind of information, we find exchanging it extraordinarily compelling.

Such chatter benefits both the members of a group and the group as a whole. Individuals can better keep track of shifting alliances within the group, and passing accurate or useful information to others can help establish one's credibility as an ally or suitability as a mate. Collectively, the group can more easily detect members who take advantage of others, fail to share resources, or violate the group's norms in other ways. The exchange of social information ensures that even those who do not witness bad behavior directly will soon learn about it, and the off ending party can then be punished through ridicule or ostracism. In surviving hunter-gatherer societies, such banter seems to be used to maintain equality within nomadic bands by suppressing internal competition and encouraging consensus. A group member who tries to assert his dominance or make an unreasonable claim on food or other resources may be gently teased or mocked to indicate that his peers think he is getting too big for his boots. Like grooming, gossip serves as a vital social glue.

Excerpted from WRITING ON THE WALL by TOM STANDAGE. Copyright © 2013 Tom Standage. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Cicero's Web 1

1 The Ancient Foundations of Social Media: Why Humans Are Wired for Sharing 6

2 The Roman Media: The First Social-Media Ecosystem 21

3 How Luther Went Viral: The Role of Social Media in Revolutions (1) 48

4 Poetry in Motion: Social Media for Self-Expression and Self-Promotion 64

5 Let Truth and Falsehood Grapple: The Challenges of Regulating Social Media 82

6 And So to the Coffeehouse: How Social Media Promotes Innovation 104

7 The Liberty of Printing: The Role of Social Media in Revolutions (2) 124

8 The Sentinel of the People: Tyranny, Optimism, and Social Media 147

9 The Rise of Mass Media: The Centralization Begins 170

10 The Opposite of Social Media: Media in the Broadcast Era 189

11 The Rebirth of Social Media: From ARPANET to Facebook 214

Epilogue: History Retweets Itself 240

Acknowledgments 251

Notes 253

Sources 259

Index 269

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