How old is social media? Maybe we can date it from the birth of Facebook in February 2004. Or perhaps we can go back to 2002, to when Friendster was founded. Or even way, way, way back to digital antiquity – back to 1997, when Reid Hoffman founded the first social media website, SocialNet.
No, social media is actually older, 2,000 years older, than Facebook, Friendster or SocialNet. That’s the view at least of Tom Standage, the digital editor of the Economist, whose new book Writing In The Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years makes the intriguing argument that social media has actually been around since the Romans. It’s the industrial top-down media of the last 150 years, Standage told me, that is the historical anomaly. Social media, he explains, “scratches a prehistorical itch” for personalized news, opinion and gossip. So rather than a waste of time or a distraction, he insists, Facebook and Twitter are actually something that satisfies us as human-beings.
Standage is too good a historian to argue that nothing about social media is new. He acknowledges, for example, that the globalized, instantaneous and searchable nature of social networks are truly new. Yet Standage’s comparisons of contemporary social media with Roman papyrus letters or hand-printed tracts of the Reformation really do suggest that social media goes a lot further back than 1997. “The only surprising things about social media,” Standage dryly concludes, “is that we are surprised by it.”