Today it’s easy to assume that social media platforms are a recent development, a phenomenon unique to the Internet age. But the exchange of media along social networks of friends and acquaintances is in fact much older than Facebook, Twitter or MySpace.
Consider the situation in the late Roman republic, in the first century B.C. At the time there were no printing presses and no paper. The correspondence of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, the best preserved collection of letters from the period, shows that he and his friends wrote to each other constantly, recounting the latest political machinations, passing on items of interest from others and providing commentary and opinion.
When Cicero or another politician made a noteworthy speech, he would distribute it by making copies available to his associates, who would read it and pass it on to others. Books circulated in a similar way, as sets of papyrus rolls passed from one reader to the next. People in Rome also sent their friends excerpts from the state gazette, a bulletin posted in the Forum each day containing official announcements and summaries of political debates.
With information flitting from one person to another, this informal system enabled information to reach the farthest corners of the Roman world within a few weeks. Merchants, soldiers and officials in distant parts would circulate information from the heart of the republic within their own social circles, sharing extracts from letters, speeches or the state gazette with their friends and passing news and rumors from the frontier back to their contacts in Rome.
It was, in short, a social media system.
Today we like to draw a distinction between “new” media based on digital technologies and the “old” media that came before it. But the centralized, impersonal distribution systems of old media only emerged in the mid-1800s, and the situation before then — what could be termed the era of “really old media” — has many similarities with today’s media.
In many respects, the emergence of Internet-based social media in recent years is therefore a return to the way things used to be.
Tom Standage is digital editor of the Economist and the author of the newly published “Writing on the Wall: Social Media — The First 2,000 years.”