Tom Standage’s book, Writing on the wall: Social media – the first 2,000 years, has at its heart one good magazine-length article about how many of the concepts we associate with social networks run over the internet have in fact been around in all sorts of forms for thousands of years. Concepts such as commenting, sharing and livening up content with stories about cute animals date as far back as the Romans and their Acta Diurna.
It’s a neat piece of insight which doesn’t just give us a new way of looking at the past, it also shows us how lessons from the past help us predict even the most modern of technological developments.
What expands Ton Standage’s work to a full book is the chapters on the Romans, Martin Luther and so on. If you are not familiar with these parts of history, they make for a great set of summaries which add a persuasive weight of evidence to Standage’s case.
If you are familiar with these parts of history already, then the chapters are a little staid – they are good, competent summaries of what happened but don’t have a style or set of insights that raise them beyond the many other existing accounts of such periods that exist already. Once, for example, you have the point about 16th-century poetry used to be passed around, commented on and amended in a way similar to modern social sharing, the chapter does not offer much for anyone already familiar with the basics of 16th-century history.
But for most readers, that existing breadth of knowledge does not apply, and the weight of examples makes the book rather more persuasive, if a little less lively, than a Malcolm Gladwell volume.