Thumbs up for Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years by Tom Standage. History.
This is not, of course, really the history of what we think of when we say “social media” – MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and so on: as the sub-subtitle hints. More accurately it’s the history of all pre-centralized media. Here you will find out about the postal system of the Romans; how Luther made it big; secret messages passed via poetry at the court of Henry VIII; the political rhymes of the French revolution; how early coffeehouses were pretty much like the Internet; and what exactly was the importance of the Stamp Tax. An incredibly fascinating web of stories that expanded my brain…as good media should. Highly recommended for anyone who wants an unputdownable book of social history.
The effect of these caffeine-powered hubs was to increase the speed and efficiency with which information percolated through society. Coffeehouses imposed order on the chaotic media environment of the time, sorting material by topic and making it much easier to find specific types of information, and people to discuss it with. Both pamphlets and people, to use the modern term, became more “discoverable.” Coffeehouses gave physical form to the previously immaterial social networks along which information passed, making it much easier to connect to them. If you wanted to know what London’s scientists were talking about, for example, and make contact with them, all you had to do was walk into the Grecian coffeehouse. The social mixing that took place in coffeehouses allowed idea to leap over the boundaries of England’s class system, as the writer John Aubrey observed when he praised the “modern advantage of coffeehouses…before which, men knew not how to be acquainted, but with their own relations, or societies.” Anyone launching a new poem or pamphlet could leave copies in the establishments where it was most likely to find a receptive audience. And pamphleteers of every stripe, notably Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe, found that coffeehouse discussions offered a rich source of material for their sharp-witted satires. Coffeehouses became the logical place not just to read new works, but to write them, too. After the final collapse of press regulation in 1695 a host of new periodicals appeared, including Ned Ward’s London Spy, Defoe’s Review, Swift’s Examiner, Richard Steele’s Tatler, and the Spectator, run by Steele and Joseph Addison. Some establishments even started issuing their own specialist newsletters to cater to their patrons.
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