Writing On The Wall is the latest ‘history’ book penned by the digital editor of The Economist and Editor-In-Chief of its website, Tom Standage. It’s subtitle ‘Social media – The first 2,000 years’ accurately encapsulates the books key theme, that being that contrary to popular belief social media is nothing new, it has been around for millennia and only the delivery method has changed.
Throughout the book Standage uses examples from the past to justify his seemingly bold assertion, including to name but one, the invention of the printing press and its role in the rise of Lutheranism. If you had merely glanced over its pages you could be forgiven for thinking the book was simply discussing modern day case studies with mentions of disruptive communications, reposting, sharing and peer-to-peer networks, but you’d be wrong; these terms directly apply to the detailed historical accounts the author uses to illustrate his point.
“Luther had unwittingly revealed the power of a decentralised, person-to-person media system whose participants took care of distribution, deciding collectively which messages to amplify through sharing, recommendation, and copying.”
Standage takes the reader through the ages in chronological order, beginning with Cicero and ancient Rome right through to the modern era of digital media, though he does note that ‘social networking’ itself is much older – citing the growth of the neocortex and grooming behaviours of primates as an early example.
His book is particularly good as explaining the role social webs and word-of-mouth networks play in major social change, for example the rise of the coffee house and its transformation into the London Stock Exchange and the impact of steam presses and electric telegraphs on print journalism.
Standage is a well-respected journalist and author and this most recent text – much like his last five – is both thorough in its analysis and engaging to the reader. By shedding light on how these communications systems were developed, the reasoning behind them and how they were used brings fresh perspective on new social channels like Facebook and Twitter.
By understanding the underlying principles of social engagement, how networks can be used to affect change and why these specific examples have had such a profound effect on the world around them is an extremely useful thing to have at ones disposal. Many business people (particular those in the USA) read tomes like Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War to acquaint themselves with the finer points of strategy. And while I don’t anticipate Writing On The Wall to have such longevity or popularity, those that take the time to read it will certainly reap the rewards when planning and strategising future social campaigns.
There are only two criticisms I judge to be worth mentioning, both of which are very minor; it isn’t the easiest of books to read – that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not something you can pick up, put down or glance over casually while having a conversation – if you’re going read it (and get any benefit from it) you do need to make the time to read it properly. The second minor point is for those who are already familiar with their social history some of the examples can be quite laboured. Clearly the book is written in such a way that it can be read without any prior knowledge, however some of the accounts are in danger of being too detailed –providing context for contexts sake.
I would highly recommend this book to anybody interested in the social sciences or landscape, but particularly those that work in public relations and communications roles. You’d struggle not to draw inspiration and ideas from this fascinating read.
I’ll close as the author opened, with a quote from Cicero:
“Not to know what has been transacted in former times is to be always a child. If no use is made of the labours of past ages, the world must remain always in the infancy of knowledge.”