Review: Writing on the Wall, By Tom Standage

An attempt to chart social media from its earliest incidences to now

“I made bread,” boasts one former-day Jamie Oliver, on a wall in Pompeii. And George Clooney’s predecessor Celadus the Thracian  “makes all the girls sigh” notes a celeb scribbler.

It could be Facebook or Twitter, except that the computer has not even been invented. This is the classical era. Even so, the desire to spread news, gossip, opinions and status updates exists, according to The Economist’s digital editor Tom Standage.

His new book, Writing on the Wall, is an attempt to chart social media from its earliest incidences to now. He starts with the Roman Empire, noting that the erasable wax tablets in circulation were the beginnings of an informal messaging system. Add to that the formal news resource of the day, the acta diurna, being posted in the Forum and then blogged around the Empire, and wall graffiti as a form of Twitter, and voilà – even the Romans were at it. 

We move rapidly through the Dark Ages, where there’s little writing on walls because the few literate men are holed-up in monasteries. And then, the breakthrough arrives in 15th-century Mainz when Johannes Gutenburg invents the first printing press.

A page that would have taken hours to copy is now be reprinted in seconds. Books can be churned out by the dozen. And, in 1517, the first print sensation is created: Martin Luther, with his “Ninety-Five Theses”, a series of questions about how the Catholic Church could sell absolution .

While today we measure success by retweets and page views, back then it was the number of pamphlets reprinted, and Standage produces a traffic stats graphic to prove it, looking much like an internet stats graph as a big story breaks in waves.  You are invited to see the parallels between Luther’s pamphlets triggering the Reformation and the similar disaffection voiced on Facebook before the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions nearly three years ago.

As you add together his examples you see what Standage is driving at. That the freedom to write, whether in coffee-house pamphlets or on the blogosphere today, is the freedom of intellectual ideas, the expression of both satisfaction and dissatisfaction that strengthens democracy. Its counterpoint, suggests Standage, was the state control of the media in the first half of the 20th century as radio and television began, creating penetrating propaganda.

Standage tells a good story and the central idea is great but missing from his tour de horizon is any deep analysis.