The Economist’s Tom Standage on the History of Social Media

It’s the second day of term and I’m already committing major procrastination, but it’s fine, this is course-related.

One of my requirements this term is a lecture series held by LSE’s media think-tank Polis to hear a different industry pro chat about the latest each week. Tonight, the year kicked off with Tom Standage, the digital and tech editor for The Economist (that reminds me of American comedian Tom Papa, but that’s beside the point).

I hadn’t any idea what to expect from the lecture because I’ve spent way more time thinking about how to be on time and find my classes than actual course content, but it was fantastic. Standage’s talk was about the history of social media, and he drew some really left field analogies to argue that social media may look new and shiny now, but has been around since the early days – say, Roman Empire-ish time.

Standage’s definition of social media anchored on that first “social” part, as in “media we get from other people, exchanged along social connections,” rather than the technology of the “media” part – a choice I imagine is disputed by those who believe tech has truly revolutionized social connection. However, if the hearty sound of young folks laughing was any indicator, I think Standage pretty much won the audience over.

He explained that the ancient Romans were totally in on social media: copying letters, pirating manuscripts from neighbors, sending them to friends via their slaves, i.e. Roman Empire-style “broadband,” which got everyone’s attention. He reminded us they had tablets back then, too, you know. Standage then surprised me by noting how Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians (“After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea”) was his own social media campaign binding the early Christian church when it was struggling to find its feet. Moving along the timeline, Standage also insisted that Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” was basically the viral BuzzFeed post of its day. I thought that was fantastic. Apparently Luther even said, “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation.”

These were all really entertaining examples, but Standage’s main point was that while social media is revolutionary, it harks right back to the past. Today’s blogs are yesterday’s pamphlets, microblogs (Twitter, Sina.com) yesterday’s coffeehouses. Furthermore, each new era of communication tools will have its group of critics saying communication has been degraded, suddenly everyone can be published, etc. But what are we doing now? Same as before, hurtling down that rabbit hole of society-wide access to expression.

When it comes down to it, what called to me most was the idea that technology may have changed, but people have not. Not sure if Tom Standage really meant that message at all, of course. Regardless, this is why history is humanity’s greatest predictor of the present and future… and maybe why I love history lessons so much? (Especially when they’re funny.)

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2 thoughts on “The Economist’s Tom Standage on the History of Social Media

  1. Thanks — I’m glad you enjoyed it. Yes, underlying all this is my belief that as technology changes, human nature doesn’t. Social media is so popular today because it scratches a prehistoric itch.

    1. So flattered you read my humble review!! As you say, it’s fascinating how human nature remains constant even as the toys are constantly changing.

      I hope to hear you speak again someday – thank you!

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